When Straight Means Weird and Psychosis is Normal

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The very beginning of David Lynch's The Straight Story, the words that introduce the credits, "Walt Disney Presents - A David Lynch Film," provides what is perhaps the best resume of the ethical paradox that marks the end of century: the overlapping of the transgression with the norm. Walt Disney, the brand of the conservative family values, takes under its umbrella David Lynch, the author who epitomizes transgression, bringing to the light the obscene underworld of perverted sex and violence that lurks beneath the respectable surface of our lives.

Today, more and more, the cultural-economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself in the market competition conditions, has not only to tolerate, but directly to incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Suffice it to recall recent trends in visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or enframed paintings - what we get now are expositions of frames themselves without paintings, expositions of dead cows and their excrements, videos of the inside of the human body (gastroscopy and colonoscopy), inclusion of smell into the exposition, etc.etc. (This tendency often leads to the comic confusion, when a work of art is mistaken for an everyday object or vice versa. Recently, in Potsdamer Platz, the largest construction site in Berlin, the coordinated movement of dozens of gigantic cranes was staged as an art performance - doubtlessly perceived by a lot of uninformed bypassers as part of an intense construction activity... I myself made the opposite blunder during a trip to Berlin: I noticed at the sides and above all the main streets numerous large blue tube and pipes, as if the intricate cobweb of water, phone, electricity, etc., was no longer hidden beneath the earth, but displayed in public. My reaction to it was, of course, that this is probably another of the postmodern art performances whose aim is, this time, to render visible the intestines of the town, its hidden inner machinery, in a kind of equivalent to displaying on video the palpitation of our stomach or lungs - however, I was soon proved wrong, when friends pointed out to me that what I see is merely part of the standard maintenance and repair of the city's underground services network.) Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses are part of the system itself, the system feeds on them in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps, this is one of the possible definitions of postmodern art as opposed to modernist art: in postmodernism, the transgressive excess loses its shocking value and is fully integrated into the establishet artistic market.

So, if Lynch's earlier films were also caught in this trap, what then about The Straight Story, based on the true case of Alvin Straight, an old, crippled farmer who motored across the American plains on a John Deere lawnmower to visit his ailing brother? Does this slow-paced story of persistence imply the renunciation to transgression, the turn towards naive immediacy of direct ethical stance of fidelity? The very title of the film undoubtedly refers to Lynch's previous opus: this is the straight story with regard to the "deviations" into the uncanny underworld from Eraserhead to The Lost Highway. However, what if the "straight" hero of Lynch's last film is effectively much more subversive than the weird characters who people his previous films? What if, in our postmodern world in which the radical ethical commitment is perceived as ridiculously out of time, he is the true outcast? One should recall here G.K.Chesterton's old perspicuous remark, in his "A Defense of Detective Stories," about how the detective story "keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure, while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. /The police romance/ is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies."

What, then, if THIS is the ultimate message of Lynch's film - that ethics is "the most dark and daring of all conspiracies," that the ethical subject is the one who effectively threatens the existing order, in contrast to the long series of Lynchean weird perverts (Baron Harkonnen in Dune, Frank in Blue Velvet, Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart...) who ultimately sustain it? In this precise sense, the counterpoint to The Straight Story is Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name. The Talented Mr. Ripley tells the story of Tom Ripley, a broke ambitious young New Yorker, who is approached by the rich magnate Herbert Greenleaf, in his mistaken belief that Tom has been at Princeton with his son Dickie. Dickie is off idling in Italy, and Greenleaf pays Tom to go to Italy and bring his son back and to his sense, to take the rightful place in the family business. However, once in Europe, Tom gets more and more fascinated not only by Dickie himself, but also by the polished, easy-going, socially acceptable upper-class life that Dickie inhabits. All the talk about Tom's homosexuality is here misplaced: Dickie is for Tom not the object of his desire, but the ideal desiring subject, the transferential subject "supposed to know /how to desire/." In short, Dickie becomes for Tom his ideal ego, the figure of his imaginary identification: when he repeatedly casts a coveting side-glance at Dickie, he does not thereby betray his erotic desire to engage in sexual commerce with him, to HAVE Dickie, but his desire to BE like Dickie. So, to resolve this predicament, Tom concocts an elaborated plan: on a boat trip, he kills Dickie and then, for some time, assumes his identity. Acting as Dickie, he organizes things so that, after Dickie's "official" death, he inherits his wealth; when this is accomplished, the false "Dickie" disappears, leaving behind a suicide note prasing Tom, while Tom again reappears, successfully evading the suspicious investigators, even earning the gratitudes of Dickie's parents, and then leaves Italy for Greece.

Although the novel was written in the mid-50ies, one can claim that Highsmith foreshadows today's therapeutic rewriting of ethical into "Recommendations" which one should not follow too blindly. "Thou shalt not commit adultery - except if it is emotionally sincere and serves the goal of your profound self-realization..." Or: "Thou shalt not divorce - except when your marriage in fact breaks down, when it is experienced as an unbearable emotional burden that frustrates your full life" - in short, except when the prohibition to divorce would have regained its full meaning (since who would divorce when his/her marriage still blossoms?). No wonder that people today prefer Dalai Lama to the Pope. Even those who "respect" the Pope's moral stance, usually accompany this admiration with the qualification that he nonetheless remains hopelessly old-fashioned, medieval even, sticking to old dogmas, out of touch with the demands of new times: how can one today ignore contraception, divorce, abortion? Are this not simply facts of our life? How can the Pope deny the right abortion even to a nun who got pregnant through rape (as he effectively did in the case of the raped nuns during the war in Bosnia)? Is it not clear that, even when one is in principle against abortion, one should in such an extreme case bend the principle and consent to a compromise? What we encounter here is an exemplary case of today's ideology of "realism": we live in the era of the end of great ideological projects, let's be realists, let's give up immature utopian illusions - the dream of the Welfare State is over, one should come to terms with the global market... One can now understand why Dalai-Lama is much more appropriate for our postmodern permissive times: he presents us with a vague feel-good spiritualism without any SPECIFIC obligations: anyone, even the most decadent Hollywood star, can follow him while continuing his money-grabbing promiscuous life style.

Ripley simply stands for the last step in this rewriting: thou shalt not kill - except when there is really no other way to pursue your happiness. Or, as Highsmith herself put it in an interview: "He could be called psychotic, but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational. /.../ I consider him a rather civilized person who kills when he absolutely has to." Ripley is thus not any kind of the "American psycho": his criminal acts are not frenetic passages a l'acte, outbursts of violence in which he releases the energy hindered by the frustrations of the yuppie daily life. His crimes are calculated with simple pragmatic reasoning: he does what is necessary to attain his goal, the wealthy quiet life in the exclusive suburbs of Paris. What is so disturbing about him, of course, is that he somehow seems to lack the elementary ethical sense: in the daily life, he is mostly friendly and considerate (although with a touch of coldness), and when he commits a murder, he does it with regret, quickly, as painlessly as possible, in the same way one performs an unpleasant but necessary task. He is the ultimate psychotic, the best exemplification of what Lacan had in mind when he claimed that normality is the special form of psychosis - of not being traumatically caught in the symbolic cobweb, of retaining the "freedom" from the symbolic order.

However, the mystery of Highsmith's Ripley transcends the standard American ideological motif of the capacity of the individual to radically "reinvent" him/herself, to erase the traces of the past and assume a thoroughly new identity, it transcends the postmodern "Protean Self". Therein resides the ultimate failure of the movie with regard to the novel: the film "gatsbyizes" Ripley into a new version of the American hero who recreates his identity in a murky way. What gets lost here is best exemplified by the crucial difference between the novel and the film: in the film, Ripley has the stirrings of a conscience, while in the novel, the qualms of conscience are simply beyond his grasp. This is why the making-explicit of Ripley's gay desires in the film also misses the point. Minghella implies that, back in the 50ies, Highsmith had to be more circumspect to make the hero palatable to the large public, while today we can say things in a more overt way. However, Ripley's coldness is not the surface effect of his gay stance, but rather the other way round. In one of the later Ripley novels, we learn that he makes love once a week to his wife Heloise, as a regular ritual - there is nothing passionate about it, Tom is like Adam in paradise, prior to the Fall, when, according to St Augustine, he and Eve DID have sex, but it was performed as a simple instrumental task, like sowing the seeds on a field. One way to read Ripley is thus to claim that he is angelic, living in a universe which precedes the Law and its transgression (sin).

In one of the later Ripley novels, the hero sees two flies on his kitchen table and, upon looking at them closely and observing that they are copulating, squashes them with disgust. This small detail is crucial - Minghella's Ripley would NEVER have done something like this: Highsmith's Ripley is in a way disconnected from the reality of flesh, disgusted at the Real of life, of its cycle of generation and corruption. Marge, Dickie's girlfriend, provides an adequate characterization of Ripley: "All right, he may not be queer. He's just a nothing, which is worse. He isn't normal enough to have any kind of sex life." Insofar as such coldness characterizes a certain radical lesbian stance, one is tempted to claim that, rather than being a closet gay, the paradox of Ripley is that he is a male lesbian. This disengaged coldness that persists beneath all possible shifting identities gets somehow lost in the film. The true enigma of Ripley is why he persists in this shuddering coldness, retaining a psychotic disengagement from any passionate human attachment, even after he reaches his goal and recreates himself as the respectable art-dealer living in the rich Paris suburb.

Perhaps, the opposition of Lynch's "straight" hero and Highsmith's "normal" Ripley determines the extreme coordinates of today's late capitalist ethical experience - with the strange twist that it is Ripley who is uncannily "normal," and the "straight" man who is uncannily weird, even perverted. How, then, are we to break out of this deadlock? Both heroes have in common the ruthless dedication to pursue their goal, so the way out may seem to be to abandon this common feature and plea for a more "warm," compassionate humanity ready to accept compromises. Is, however, such a "soft" (in short: unprincipled) "humanity" not the predominant mode of subjectivity today, so that the two films merely provide its two extremes?

In the late 20ies, Stalin defined the figure of a Bolshevik as the unity of Russian passionate obstinacy and American resourcefulness. Perhaps, along the same lines, one should claim that the way out is rather to be sought in the impossible synthesis of the two heroes, in the figure the Lynchean "straight" man who pursues his goal with the cunning resourcefulness of Tom Ripley.