Film, Media and Music
This brief afterword returns to two questions posed by Max Silverman in his foreword to the volume: i) whether the dominating framework and vocabulary of psychoanalytic interpretation have obscured other ways of approaching dreams and their relationship to atrocity; ii) whether unconventional modes of reading dreams might offer a means of explicating how dreams are activated by historical, political and cultural phenomena. Positioning itself against a reductive understanding of dreams and narrow psychoanalytic frameworks, the volume has nonetheless retained the idea that dreams are a fundamental part of reality, with the capacity to bring to light what otherwise remains invisible. The afterword concludes by identifying the volume as a form of oneiric archive that brings lived dreams and dreamlike aesthetics into dialogue with moments of historical and cultural atrocity, thereby elevating the meaning and stakes of dreaming.
In this essay, Claire Denis’ science-fiction film High Life (2018) is studied through the lens of Max Silverman’s notion of concentrationary cinema as well as through the aesthetics of the science-fiction sublime. Questions of representation, or rather, the way that science fiction confronts the problem of representing that which is unrepresentable – from the myriad human atrocities of the modern era to the contemporary anxiety of impending (potential) human annihilation – are explored alongside those issues confronted by attempts to use Holocaust representation as a method of critique. Extrapolating from the precariousness and pessimism of the tumultuous present, High Life explores and ultimately rejects the possibility, save annihilation, of any kind of redemption in humanity’s future, suggestive of Silverman’s thoughts on destruction as a desirable release from prolonged torture. To watch this film is to immerse oneself in a portrayal of the not-so-distant future that is as nightmarish as it is serene. Employing techniques in a dreamlike narrative structure characteristic of Silverman’s concentrationary cinema – including radical montage, disorienting flashbacks and temporal discontinuity – Denis draws on the impossible limitlessness of space juxtaposed with the terror of confinement to craft an oneiric aesthetic meditation on the sublime that is also a nightmarish visceral study of the violence and trauma characteristic of the post-industrial human experience. High Life is an allegorisation of the collective traumas of modernity, if not of the Nazi concentration camp more specifically, which becomes a defining symbol for representations of the traumas of the modern world – traumas that may otherwise remain unrepresentable.
This essay discusses how the work of the psychoanalyst Pierre Fédida (1934–2002) and the historian of images Georges Didi-Huberman (b. 1953) may be brought together around questions of representation, dream interpretation, empathy and memory in the understanding of trauma and atrocity images. Firstly, key aspects of Fédida’s work on dreams are explored: the way dream images show up the limits of language, their own inaccessibility and the speechlessness and vulnerability experienced by the patient. In the space of the psychoanalytical session constructed between analyst and patient, Fédida presents a scenario of hesitation, silence and breathing, which nevertheless involves a kind of transmission that relates to its enigmatic relation to memory. Communicating in direct and indirect ways, dream images therefore act as both the source of sometimes excessive fascination for patients and the unique repository of images of the self that can remind them of how they are still human even if they are catastrophically downcast. Fédida draws on Didi-Huberman’s work on photographs of atrocity from Auschwitz to explore how looking at the images might be linked to the analytical treatment of traumatic memories. For Fédida, a position of non-identifying empathy can acknowledge the co-existence of both human and dehumanised subjects; in Didi-Huberman a dialectic of positive and negative terms like resemblance and dissemblance keeps art history from coalescing into certainties and alive to the force of memory: ‘Our present […] is obligated to, subject to, alienated from memory’ (Fédida). Lastly, the enduring impact of Fédida’s thought on Didi-Huberman is discussed.
Recently rediscovered and republished in 2019 in France, 82 Rêves pendant la guerre entre 1939–1945 (82 Dreams during the war 1939–1945) represents French-Hungarian writer and painter Emil Szittya’s attempt to provide an answer to the question of what it means to dream in wartime. In 82 Dreams, Szittya not only included dream narratives he collected amongst people of all age, men and women, French citizens and refugees, Resistance members and Nazi officers, but also included some of his own paintings. The heterogeneity of Szittya’s text is further reinforced by his inseparable roles as author, editor, and his position as a Jew and a foreigner forced to flee Occupied Paris. On the one hand, Szittya does not aspire to interpret dreams (unlike Charlotte Beradt), or at least not through a psychoanalytical framework. On the other, his painted illustrations may be considered as attempts to visually translate the symbolic language of dreams (described by Reinhart Koselleck, among others). If the kind of knowledge generated by the intersecting textual and visual dimensions of Szittya’s work is as difficult to define as the specific genre of the ‘dream during war/occupation’, this chapter demonstrates how text and painting both rely on the peculiar power of dreams to document complex entanglements of private experience and historical events.
Two considerations frame this chapter’s conceptualisation of Yorgos Lanthimos’ so-called ‘weird’ cinema: Walter Benjamin’s assertion that a totalitarian ‘state of emergency’ is now a perennial condition of political-juridical life in the west, and Todd McGowan’s observation that cinema is ‘a form of public dreaming’ shaped by the social imaginary. Comprised of six feature films – Kinetta (1995), Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011), The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Favourite (2018) – Lanthimos’ cinema stages a series of dramas of familial and group conflicts that revolve around violent, often abusive power relations. Psychoanalytically, these films can be understood in terms of the Subject’s submissive attachment to the authority of the super-ego. At the same time, they can be seen as re-enactments of the excesses associated with the violent exercise of totalitarian power, the traumatic effects of which have their roots in Greece’s experience of a series of dictatorships dating back to the period of the Holocaust. Analogous to a sequence of dreams, the films can be seen to oscillate between, on the one hand, the representation of an enduring sense of psychic and ideological repression and, on the other hand, a wish to overcome such repression. The staging of this wish in the films reveals with a dramatic sense of force the co-dependency between the construction of the subject and the reproduction of ideology. If, as Lanthimos’ cinema implies, the subject’s identity is virtual, then it follows that Benjamin’s conception of the ‘state of emergency’ is an historically contingent phenomenon rather than an ontological condition.
Exploring the status of the oneiric beyond psychoanalysis, Dreams and atrocity synthesises interdisciplinary perspectives from literary criticism, medical humanities, memory and cultural studies, history and art practice. The volume sheds new light on the relevance of dreams as modes of psychic resistance and historical witness as well as symptoms of trauma in modern and contemporary representations of atrocity. Central to the book is the articulation of the oneiric’s potential to awaken us to the pervasive violence of our contemporary world – providing us with the means not only of diagnosing but also of responding to historical episodes of atrocity, from twentieth-century genocide to contemporary racism and transphobia. The contributors develop new ways of reading the dreamlike in cultural works, foregrounding its power as an aesthetic mode and political tool. Organised into three parts – ‘Dream images’, ‘Dreams as sites of resistance’, and ‘Violent states’ – the book conducts a timely enquiry into the role played by the unconscious in processing and illustrating atrocity in an increasingly violent world. In so doing, it attends to the significance of dreams in dark times, illuminating the triangulated relationship between dream life, memory and trauma.
This chapter discusses the representation of the threshold in René Magritte’s series of door paintings (1933–62), Franz Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’ (1905) and Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel (1962). With reference to the Surrealist approach to the dream as a means of subverting ‘normality’, I explore the allegorical engagement of these figures with the notion of the threshold, which signals the violence of normative power in contemporary society. Both Magritte and Kafka’s doors are open, free to pass, yet strangely emanating a sense of inaccessibility, which is more blatantly expressed in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel – a story about people trapped in an unlocked house. I will discuss whether these nightmarish representations of open yet inaccessible doors can be understood as a criticism of the violence of normative power, as articulated in Agamben (1999)’s and Derrida (1992)’s interpretations of Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’. Both Agamben and Derrida argue that the law fundamentally belongs to the literary space of narration, revolving around ambiguous relations between reality and story, anomy and nomos. At the origin of the law, for them, is the fictionality that makes possible the normalisation of life by narrating the universal out of the singular. I demonstrate how the conceptualisation of the threshold by Magritte, Kafka and Buñuel illuminates the literary space of the law/norm that is fictitious yet actual in legitimising reality, challenging the normalised perception of reality through a subversive use of the dream and dreamlike imagery.
In Jean-Claude Grumberg’s 1998 play Rêver peut-être (Perchance to Dream), an actor rehearsing Hamlet suddenly faces accusations of murder, but not any murder, one he allegedly committed in his dreams. When questioned by a judge, the protagonist Gérard B. is unable to recall the name of his alleged victim. As a result, he faces a Kafkaesque trial in which his dreams are scrutinised to determine his humanity/inhumanity. Drawing on the notion of ‘souvenir-fantôme’ or ‘phantom-memory’ developed by French philosopher Henry Bergson, which refers to a type of buried memory only available in dreams, this chapter investigates the links between dreams, memory, history and spectrality. In Bergson’s philosophical model of the dream, the dream is associated with a widening of perception, allowing what remains otherwise hidden in waking life to become visible. Such a model proves highly pertinent for elucidating the dynamics at play in Rêver peut-être: as I demonstrate, it is in his dreams that Gérard is able to perceive what he had so far refused to see in waking life, namely that the spectral presence haunting his dreams is his father who was deported when he was an infant in Vichy France. Banished from waking life by concentrationary forces, the spectres, or unmourned victims of atrocities, find refuge in the oneiric realm. The act of dreaming thus ultimately becomes a subversive, rebellious act alluding to the tension between law and the kind of justice that is demanded by the spectre.
Marie NDiaye’s oeuvre is known for, among others, its ‘strangeness’ attributed to narrative holes and the blurred frontiers between reality and the dream. Ladivine (2013) – whose (post)colonial motif and the trauma associated with it is perhaps the most explicitly treated to date by the author famous for being evasive about the race of her protagonists – is no exception. In this article, I examine two distinct dimensions which in effect merge and entwin in the novel: the enduring, and transgenerational (as depicted in Ladivine in particular), trauma of (post)colonialism and its oneiric or phantasmatic manifestations since its extreme nature escapes not only a realistic narration but the conscious. I analyse this aspect of the novel in light of Fanon’s psychoanalytical theories of the ‘lived’ black experience as well as theories by Freud and Lacan. Rejecting his earlier assertion of the dream as wishful or driven by the pleasure principle, Freud proposes the repetition compulsion to explain traumatic dreams and equates repetition with the death drive. Lacan reframes the Freudian death drive as the real, part of the trilogy of the imaginary–the symbolic–the real, by positing that the real of trauma is that which resists symbolization, that is, the impossible to say or name. The writing style of Ladivine exemplifies, I argue, such impossibility, which lends the novel an aura of strangeness, filled with narrative jumps and gaps.
This introductory chapter explains the aim of the volume: to read dreams not only as trauma’s coded language but also as an imaginative escape from and resistance to the oppression and systemic violence of ‘dark times’. Central to the book is a reassessment of the faculty and function of dreaming, one that sees dreams as active and perceptive psychological episodes whose capacity for thought renders them inherently political. This approach liberates the dream from its psychoanalytic detainment and opens it up to other kinds of theorisations, applications and interpretations. It illuminates precisely why the dream is uniquely placed to rail against, or indeed remedy, modern and contemporary trauma.