Thursday, October 22, 2009

Opposing God to nature: the denial of the ontologically obvious

In his work the The Antichrist, Nietzsche correctly observed that "Once the concept of ‘nature’ had been opposed to the concept of ‘God,’ the word ‘natural’ necessarily took on the meaning of ‘abominable’—the whole of that fictitious world has its sources in hatred of the natural (–the real!–), and is no more than evidence of a profound uneasiness in the presence of reality. . . . This explains everything.” It may not explain everything, but it certainly explains a lot, especially about Christianity in its western mode, which opposition probably reached its apex in the nineteenth century. Christianity was the object of Nietzsche's attack.

Overcoming the effects the opposition between nature and God, not just with regard to the feminine, but concerning women, constitutes the reason for Catherine Breillat's film Anatomy of Hell. Her short interview with Sight and Sound demonstrates this to an extent.

However, it is David Durnell's Woman’s Body as an Anatomy of Hell: Nihilism, Recursion and Tragedy in Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell that really gives insight into her intense and extreme creation. My only criticism of Durnell's analysis of the film is that he mitigates and reduces Breillat's take on male homosexuality. He is correct when he observes that she holds the presupposition "that gay men 'do not like women,'" and that she "is less concerned with the feelings of the homosexual male than she is with the repressed and fragmented 'self' of the female, and how that female views men –and thus views herself." But he is just plain wrong, veering off into the politically and academically correct, which Breillat rejects at every turn, that the way she depicts "homosexuality is figurative" and that "the man in her film [is] more an Image of [an] alpha-male, religious chauvinist than he is overtly 'gay.'" This is a move that introduces a false distinction into the film, one not made by the author/director. While it may seem a small thing, it disorients her work and compromises the recovery she attempts by way of implication, whether directly intended or not. As a result of making this film, she was denounced as a homophobe. Before we can discuss something intelligently we have to be honest about what we see and judge it accordingly. While still not at all accurate, it is more honest to denounce her as a homophobe than to make the move Durnell makes; both are ideological moves, but Durnell's is artificial, that is, something tacked on afterwards.


  1. The phobic theory of homosexuality has been empirically discredited for the last 35 years. So maybe Durnell wasn't veering off into the politically correct after all. Perhaps he was trying to work out the cognitive dissonance he felt in the fact that an otherwise intelligent artist appeared to advocating an otherwise idiotic theory.

  2. Breillat may guilty of many things, but she is not advocating an idiotic theory. As far as I can tell, she advocates no theory about homosexuality at all. There is no way to empirically disprove what is obvious, that the homosexual male sexually does not "like" the female, or, given the inevitable ambiguities inherent in much human sexuality, he at least sexually prefers the male to the female. Such an empirical feat would be tantamount to disproving the roundness of a circle.

    Suffice it to say that I harbor deep reservations about the social sciences, especially as they bear on questions like ones Breillat explores.

    Her larger point, given that the man (he is not named, as the woman in the film is not) winds up having intercourse with the woman, not due to seduction or desire, but dominance, is to say something about male sexuality in general.

  3. I don't know how I got the impression that Breillat was proposing ye olde phobic theory. Perhaps my thought went something like this: Breillat says fear is fundamental on the male end of male-female interactions; she chooses a gay man to represent the prototypical male; thus, gay men are fearful of women; therefore, because they are so fearful, they don't "like" women.

    The last step is a leap, I'll grant you, but does the above seem like a reasonable representation of Breillat (even though greatly simplified)?

    It seems sad to be suspicious of the social sciences. . . perhaps you'll post something about this issue later.

  4. Human sexual activity involves much more than physical attraction. Intercourse can occur for a number of motivators from power/dominance to love. The very fact that Breillat is willing to address this opens a much needed dialogue.

  5. I don't think fear plays a role in Breillat's exploration, she is not dealing at that shallow a level.

    As far as being suspicous of the social sciences, I am no more suspicious of them than I am of the natural sciences, due to the sweeping conclusions drawn from empirical data that leap the logic chain. On the other hand, I admit to having fairly deep philosophical problems with the social sciences in general, which I realize is an almost unjustifiably sweeping statement. Among these problems is their susceptibility to being co-opted by the pervasive ideology and placed in its service. I stand opposed to any attempt to reduce our humanity. Currently, as the Holy Father observed in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, reducing ourselves to our sexuality generates existential confusion.

    I agree with something that Juan Manuel de Prada wrote recently: "The battle that is joined today is not ideological, but anthropological..." What God seeks to do in and through Christ, in and through the Church, is to restore us to our "authentic nature, permitting [us] to emerge from the Babelic confusion fomented by ideology."

    What Breillat attempts in her Anatomy of Hell is something similar, which is not to say identical because she does not work from a Christian anthropology. Hence, she believes that the overcoming religion is necessary due to the opposition it posits between God and nature. She seems unaware that such an opposition is not only not inherent to Christianity, but is antithetical to it. The work of Balthasar, who took Nietzsche seriously, among others, stands as a refutation to this opposition.

  6. I would need to know a lot more about Continental feminism before making up my mind whether Breillat believes fear is too shallow to figure in her exploration.

    Fundamentally, we are in agreement about the social sciences. When you alluded to your reservations concerning them, I thought you meant you them as such, and that would have been sad. But seeing as your concerns stem from their political excesses and sometimes contentious starting points, all my qualms are laid to rest.

    The main point of my first comment to a resolve a small ambiguity in saying that Durnell veered off into the politically correct---as phrase which might be taken to imply that Durnell was being dishonest by saying what he thought his colleagues wanted to hear rather than what he really believed. I would say that he is only materially, and not formally, guilty of being PC.

  7. I think watching her film is more important than a deep engagement with Continental feminism. Breillat is very unconventional and idiosyncratic, which is what makes her work interesting as well the reason why she is frequently denounced by the guardians of political correctness. In other words, she is not scared to play el matador to sacred cows. In recommending watching it, be prepared for an extreme experience.

    I defy the reduction of humanity that the social sciences frequently attempt. Humanity can not be reduced to a mountain of data and questions of meaning can no more be drawn from social science research than from research in the physical sciences. Policy-makers are all too happy to attempt such a reduction. Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kundera stand in opposition to such threatening hubris, which surely constitutes, in part, the new tyranny Prada identifies.

    By introducing something into Breillat's work that is not there, Durnell goes awry. I oppose this move on artistic grounds.


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