Existentialist Aesthetics and Mimetic Cinema
As a modern philosophical term, "aesthetics" includes theories of perception, and judgment of beauty as well as the implementation of the same through works of art in an objective sense, or to sensual experientialism in the subjective. Of all schools of philosophy the existentialists, both in theory and practise, have made significant the most significant contribution to aesthetics, indeed often the philosophical contribution is expressed almost entirely in through the aesthetic expression. As an example, although Albert Camus rejected the title "existentialist" in favour of "absurdism", most philosophical taxonomists do consider his great novels, The Stranger, The Plague, The Happy Death within the existentialist milleu. Camus' major non-fiction work, The Myth of Sisyphus, posits the question on whether the innate meaningless and futility of life rationally necessitates suicide. Camus, as is well known, argues in the negative, claiming that the response to this realisation ought to be a revolt against it and through our works we both accept the absurd and create meaning.
Of course, we can see exactly the same theme in Jean-Paul Sartre's famous novel, Nausea. The disgust towards existence, the anxious search for meaning in an indifferent world finally results in acceptance, and even opportunity to responsibly and freely commit to the human creation of meaning. Taking the matter to a more metaphysical level and with a mythic setting, The Flies, reconstructs the story Orestes and Electra in their desire to avenge the death of their father Agamemnon, by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her husband, who had deposed and killed Agamemnon. In this particular twist however Sartre has Orestes and Electra confront Zeus and the Furies as well, making the particular revelation that once people realise that they are free they cannot be touched by the Gods; but they can generate their own guilt for the failure to accept the responsibility that comes with freedom. Finally, we can see further elaboration of the issue of freedom and responsibility in their relationship with others, exemplified in the famous play "No Exit" where a group of individuals realise that they are in an inescapable hell in the company of people they do not particularly like and are quite capable of probing the personal weaknesses of others.
However it in the literary work of Simone de Beauvoir that the relationship with others in more fully explored. Whether it is the sexual ethics in She Came to Stay, the supposedly scandalous elaboration of a ménage à trois, or In the The Blood of Others, where the dialectic between freedom of oneself and responsibility to others is examined within the setting of the occupation of Paris and especially the question of collaboration versus resistance, a topic which receives a sense of recollection in her later novel, The Mandarins. Reference can also be made in the behaviour of Regina as she seeks a personal immortality by seeking the affections of the immortal Raimon, in All Men Are Mortal, whilst at the same time exploring a phenomenological perspective of events from mortal and immortal eyes. We will also witness variation on the phenomenology of aging and the relationship to the human creation of meaning takes additional perspectives in the trio of short stories but also in the non-fiction text The Coming of Age.
Indeed, there is certainly a sense of the deliberately evocative and poetic in the non-fiction texts of existentialist authors. Whether it is terror and tremors of Kierkegaard, the mythic metaphors and laconic aphorisms of Nietzsche, the grand narrative of history and theological spirit of Berdyaev, the angst and despair of Marcel, the detective novel style in Arendt, the subjective sensuality expressed by Husserl, these remain examples, and this remains true most of the loose school of philosopher-authors associated with existentialism - and this is without even touching those who engaged almost entirely in the literary form such as Dostoyevsky, and Kafka.
This is no mere accident. As existentialism is grounded in the subjective experience of existence its ontology and epistemology follows that which is directly experienced, rather than attempts to rationalise and formalise in an objectivating manner. For the existentialist the subjective is the experience, and therefore is the reality, delusions, hallucinations, madness, love, fear, death, all inclusive within the human consciousness and all related to experience of freedom, the constraints of setting, the responsibility towards others, the creation of meaning. The existentialist aesthetic, grounded in experience, became suspicious of formalism and disliked the attempt to separate the aesthetic endeavour from the political and the ethical.
An opportunity is made here that perhaps an existential sociology of the aesthetic could still explore the conflict noted by the critical-theorist Herbert Marcuse between art produced for the purpose of sale, to keep the artist alive, and the genuinely high and free art which is less encumbered by such concerns and is therefore more able to engage in symbolic transcendence. Nevertheless it is not at all surprising that the existentialists become strongly associated with the aesthetic in theory and in practise. After all, of what other body of philosophical practise could the following come? "How many existentialists does it take to change a lightbulb? Two. One to change the lightbulb and one to observe how the lightbulb symbolises an incandescent beacon of subjectivity in a netherworld of Cosmic Nothingness."
Now these expressions are very much technologically embodied in a particularly age where mass literacy was strongly coupled with narrow-band electronic broadcasts, such as radio plays. It is of an age where rich multimedia and special effects were not particularly well-developed and as a result, historical existentialist cinema tends to correlate with these technological limits. In a rather interesting development, some of the more explicit examination of existentialist themes occur in the genre of The Western; in "The Magnificent Seven" (and the original "Seven Samurai") the core characters take opportunity to reflect and comment negatively upon their own lives in comparison with that of the farmers whom they have sworn to protect, regaining their sense of dignity and self-esteem in the act of protection. Jean Genet's famous Song of Love explores the capacity of freedom even in incarceration as two prisoners build a relationship in an brutal and authoritarian environment. Finally, there is always reference to Paths of Glory, typically described as an example of absurdism, set in World War One where a group of French soldiers refuse an order to engage in a suicidal attack against a German position and are executed for cowardice.
However brilliantly executed however, in terms of their existential content these films is primarily due to what Aristotle referred to diegesis rather than mimesis. To put in very summary terms, mimesis is distinguished from diegesis by the way a tale is expressed. Diegesis tells or recounts the story, whereas mimesis shows by means of directly represented action, by enaction. It does not seek to speak or explain, but rather to represent. In that representation however certain fictional elaborations are not just allowed by are even encouraged to enunciate the unreal content of a scene, it is not imitation as Plato described mimesis, but simulated representation. As a painting, Picasso's Guernica stands as an example of mimesis - the cubist forms gain dramatic strength to represent the terror and the suffering inflicted upon non-combatants in a warzone. In cinema the most common and indeed even trivial mimetic elements can involve the inclusion of incidental music to accentuate the emotional content of the scene which is outside the narrative frame.
Of course, this is not the only mimetic element and certainly not the only one that is used in existentialist cinema. Jean-Luc Godard's acclaimed film "Breathless" not only describes existential conditions of seduction and betrayal in the narrative, but in particular the innovative use of jump-cuts. Whereas the jump-cut had previously been used with the intent of emphasising to the audience of the unreality of the film experience, in Goddard it serves a spur to memory, representation and recollection. For memory and experience does not occur in exacting temporal sequentiality, but rather - as some empirical studies now show - it can be experienced with subjective time quite varied to real time and with subjective memory concentrating on the most dramatic or meaningful parts of an experience. Of similar vintage Resnais' and Robbe-Grillet's "Last Year at Marienbad" where the oneiric representation of events includes memorable images of the metaphor of human consciousness, such as the geometric garden scene where the people present cast long dark shadows, but the foliage does not.
In science fiction as well, existentialist themes find their representation in a mimetic manner. In Blade Runner, derived from the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the key characters, both protagonist and antagonist, encounter the issue of an engineered and deliberate extremely limited lifespan. Rich in metaphor and with dramatic events giving a realistic accelerated phenomenological experience of the last hours of a healthy body in its prime, the film is presented with both diagetic and mimetic moments and indeed, diagetic and mimetic releases (the original and the director's cut respectively). The music in particular incorporates both of these approaches and on occasion simultaneously, especially with the way that Rachel's Song is introduced as initially an incidental and semi-conscious event, and then as an actual part of the narrative.
Finally, there is an exceptional crossover in the contemporary expression genre of magical realism between existentialist themes and mimetic devices. Once used a polite way to describe an author who wrote fantasy, contemporary magical realism is used to illustrate the thinking process and subjective rationalisations that seek to explain unnerving coincidences, which allow for a hybrid and multi-layered reading of the film. Particular examples include Juan Bayona and Sergio Sánchez's "The Orphanage", where a family moves into the house where the mother was raised as an orphan, and her son begins to encounter "imaginary friends" who become increasingly real simultaneously as the mother spirals into madness, and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" where the stepdaughter of a sadistic fascist army officer in Spain during the second world war creates or possibly escapes into a faerie realm. The ambiguity of the fantastic and the real in both these films serve as an illustration of the ambiguity between madness and sanity of the subjective experience.
Two core messages come from this presentation. The first is that of all schools of philosophy, it is the existentialists who have engaged in the most thorough contributions in theory and in practise precisely because of the subject matter that they deal with. It is almost unimaginable that, for example, philosophy in the analytic-rationalist tradition could provide material that is so rich and diverse in content and so critical in impression and expression, even if individuals from such an example tradition showed artistic merit and creativity. The second is that when engaging in an existentialist taxonomy, caution must be expressed of entrapping the analysis to a heyday period of the middle fifty years of the twentieth century. Such an approach limits existential analysis of the aesthetic to diegetic examples only, whereas with the development of special effects and new cinematic techniques the mimetic approach may provide a richer and more elaborate opportunity for existentialist studies. In doing so new opportunities arise to explore those thematic considerations of freedom, responsibility, meaning and especially the subjective experience of perception.
Presentation to the Existentialist Society, Tuesday November 1, 2011