make-believe gloabl summit with foucault, barthes, lacan and lévi-strauss

One day, way back in the 20th century, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes sat under an equatorial tree, living in their own imagined primitive past, discussing Global Studies. “What,” asked Barthes, “might the four of us contribute to a field that analyzes the world as a global system, stitched together—as Michael Curtin deftly puts it—by trade protocols, governance covenants, and communications networks?” Lévi-Strauss checked his notes, Lacan thought introspectively, and Foucault answered complicatedly. Each spoke of the cultural schemes that inform public policy and that structure debate about contemporary life. Let me summarize their conversation—translated from French.

On public issues of human rights, health, trade and transit, and environment—key foci of Global Studies—all agreed (though Lacan sat quietly) that global market integration between 1880 and 1914 and again beginning in the late 1970s drove a convergence of cultural practices that intensified human connectivity. In other words, this quartet concurred with what Suzanne Berger would later argue (2003): that 21st-century globalization had historical precedent, and that contrary to the classical idea of law as the rule of reason over human action, global norm-making is shaped by a few key ideas—including liberal-democratic ideas about resource distribution, social justice, equity, and popular sovereignty, which are themselves at the core of a few liberal democracies, including but not limited to the US, UK, France, and Germany.

Amy Stambach, “What 20th-Century Theorists Have to Say about Our World Today.” global-e: A Global Studies Journal, Volume 3 Issue 8 (August 2009).

Read the rest

philippe lejeune on diaries and fiction and patricia highsmith

Lejeune is a leading European critic and theorist of diary and autobiography. His landmark essay, “The Autobiographical Pact,” has shaped life writing studies for more than thirty years, and his many books and essays have repeatedly opened up new vistas for scholarship. As Michael Riffaterre notes, “Lejeune’s work on autobiography is the most original, powerful, effective approach to a difficult subject . . . . His style is very personal, lively. It grabs the reader as scholarship rarely does. Lejeune’s erudition and methodology are impeccable. 

—from the jacket copy for Lejeune’s On Diary


I’ve just Googled the word “antifiction” and found that it’s free, at least for literary theory. A hip-hop group has staked a claim, but that’s it. No competition. These days, the minute you invent a word, you have to take out a patent. Serge Doubrovsky thought he had invented the word “autofiction” in 1977, but in 1998 his little cousin Marc Weitzmann claimed that Jerzy Kosinski had already invented the concept in 1965, something that Philippe Vilain has just taken the time to disprove in Défense de Narcisse (2005). I tell this amusing story because I created “antifiction” out of irritation with “autofiction” (both the word and the thing). I love autobiography and I love fiction, but I love them less when they are mixed together. I do not believe that we can really read while sitting between two chairs. Most “autofictions” are read as autobiographies: the reader can hardly do otherwise. These are autobiographies that take twisting paths towards the truth. Sure, why not? But we have virtually no way of knowing where the twists are. So my personal preference is for texts that face up to the impossible truth—sometimes in oblique ways, as wesee in Georges Perec and others, but faithfully and without resorting to invention. Autobiographers are often suspected of having a weakness for invention, something that autofiction writers embrace on purpose but that autobiographers turn to out of naïveté. This is the slippery slope of memory, traditionally seen as a vice. We have Paul Ricoeur to thank for making a virtue of it under the lovely name of “narrative identity.” We are not mendacious beings; we are narrative beings, constantly reconstructing the past in order to fit it into our plans for today’s world. But even when guided by an ethical concern for truthfulness, that kind of reconstruction means flirting with invention. It seems to me that on that count, autobiography and the diary have opposite aims: autobiography lives under the spell of fiction; the diary is hooked on truth. 


Let me be clear: I do not mean that autobiographies are false and diaries are true. I am talking about the dynamics of these two writing postures, both of which are present in varying proportions in all personal texts. In a study on how a diary can “end,” I tried to show that the problem of autobiography is the beginning, the gaping hole of the origin, whereas for the diary it is the ending, the gaping hole of death. Any autobiographer can end his text by taking the narrative up to the point of its writing. His biggest problem is upstream: building something solid behind it. But the past puts up only minor resistance to the powers of the imagination. “Long ways, long lies” goes the proverb. The same cannot be said of the future. Diarists never have control over what comes next in their texts. They write with no way of knowing what will happen next in the plot, much less how it will end. The past is wonderfully malleable. It is relatively easy to ensure that it does not contradict you (although the truth does sometimes come back to bite people!) The future is pitiless and unforeseeable. You do not have any elbow room with the future. And the present—the diarist’s subject matter—immediately objects to anything that smacks of invention.


I found my ideas on the incompatibility of fiction and the present echoed in Roland Barthes’s last lecture course, La Préparation du roman (2003):


Can one make Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How does one reconcile—dialecticize—the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity of the present as we are swept along in it? (The present is what sticks to you, as though you had your nose up against a mirror.)


[Peut-on faire du Récit (du Roman) avec du Présent? Comment concilier—dialectiser—la distance impliquée par l’énonciation d’écriture et la proximité, l’emportement du présent vécu à même l’aventure. (Le présent, c’est ce qui colle, comme si on avait le nez sur le miroir.)]


Since Barthes is after literature at all costs, he solves the problem with the idea that there is an “art of the present” or “art of notation”: the “haiku.” It seems to me that he is only half right. The haiku is an art of the moment, not of the present. The moment is a piece of time wrested out of continuity, out of the constant flow that moves from the past towards the future (or vice versa!): it already has one foot in eternity. The present is that poor thing that runs along, this rocking motion that we each experience all alone. The haiku is rarely dated and is often impersonal. For Barthes, the haiku is a good image of the present, while the diary is a bad one. With its date, its details, its first person, its contingency, its solitude, the journal is something he has tried out and written off (in “Délibération”).


An imaginary reconstruction of the present could only be viewed and experienced as a lie, or insanity, and would be difficult to keep up over time. How could you adjust yesterday’s lies to match today’s realities, every single day? It would be a full-time job just keeping the two in parallel. They would soon diverge infinitely. Naïve fiction, or deliberate autofiction, are easy in a retrospective or summarizing autobiographical narrative. The diary makes it impossible, or at least very difficult: the diary is “antifiction,” in the same way that we say “antilock” or, let’s say, “antipest.” Which brings me back to my neologism. My purpose in cobbling this word together is not to create a new genre by drawing yet another pigeonhole in the current literary scene, but to refer to a constant property of this type of writing.


The fact that the diary is “antifiction” obviously does not mean that it is “antisubjectivity.” This distinction, which people are at pains to make when discussing an autobiographical narrative, goes without saying for the diary, which could not possibly be more subjective or less fictional. Nor does it mean that the diary is “anti-art”: it is a common error these days to confuse art and fiction. Catherine Rannoux recently published an interesting stylistic study under a strange title, Les Fictions du journal littéraire [The Fictions of the Literary Diary]. She analyzes dialogism and intertextuality in Paul Léautaud, Jean Malaquais, and Renaud Camus, three French diarists among the most intent on the pursuit of truth. But does language contain anything other than “fiction”? All language is shared and every narrative is a construction. What distinguishes fiction from its opposite, and gives the word its meaning, is that someone exercises the liberty of inventing rather than setting out to tell the truth (which may be a naïve project, but then life itself is naïve).


The word “autofiction” has had great success because some contemporary writers have been intent on being seen as artists (“I am a bird, see my wings,” said La Fontaine’s bat), as though the truth did not have wings too, as though trying to tell the truth were not a powerful constraint that could lead to the height of artistry. But with the diary one must seek artistry in something other than fiction, which leads us to the challenging of certain academic canons. The diary is a sort of “installation” that plays on fragmentation and the tangential in an aesthetics of repetition and vertigo that is very different from traditional narrative aesthetics.


So my neologism is a sort of plea. My entire background lies behind this little lexicographical adventure. I love reading fiction, but am incapable of writing it. As an adolescent, I kept a diary that disappointed me: I wrote about my life’s disappointments badly, but accurately. That is why, as an adult, I threw myself into autobiography as a subject of study and a personal practice: constructing a work of art in the field of truthfulness or delineating the truth through the work of writing. Or rather, both at once. That is what lay behind my theory of the “autobiographical pact,” which is clearly an “antifiction” pact. But one of the differences between autobiography and the diary is that in autobiography, antifiction is a commitment that must be made and kept. For the diarist it is a fundamental constraint, like it or not. All you need do is to make a commitment to keep a diary and the rest is decided for you. You’re already on board. It is like the law of gravity: inescapable. If you start inventing things, you are quickly tossed overboard. There is no need to sign a pact with the reader. It is a mystical alliance with Time. I have avoided defining the diary in terms of privacy or secrecy: that is an important dimension, but a secondary one that is optional and recent (dating from the late eighteenth century). The main thing is how the diary relates to time and supports truth-seeking. Since the 1980s, I have gradually disengaged from autobiographical construction. What I liked in Michel Leiris’s poetic writing was that he had stopped writing narrative and was looking for a sort of “perpetual motion” of writing the self that revolved around the present. But this was a vague, undated present. Although I have no intention of imitating it, the model offered by Claude Mauriac in Le Temps immobile has since come to fascinate me: in his diary of an autobiographical reading of his diary, the retrospective reconstructions are no longer destructive and overwhelming because they leave the diary intact while exploring it, and follow along smoothly as the exploration diary unfolds. The real problem is less the danger posed by the gaze of outsiders than that of writing in the face of tomorrow, in the face of emptiness, in the face of no one, in the face of death. Choosing to keep your diary secret is significant because when you do that, the vast emptiness of time opens before you. Stendhal observed that this frees you of the need to please or persuade. You cannot imagine the mentality of the people who will read you a hundred years from now: all you can do to please them is to try to tell the truth.


This little word “antifiction”—not a very attractive one, I must admit—seems to say something different from the English “non-fiction.” It is more combative and less soft. It is also more precise: it does not apply to all texts that contain no fiction (negative definition), but to a specific category of texts that adamantly reject fiction (positive definition). The  diary grows weak and faints or breaks out in a rash when it comes into contact with fiction. Autobiographies, biographies, and history books are contaminated: they have fiction in their blood. Of course I realize that I am exaggerating and over-simplifying.


There are shades of grey and nuances; it’s not always quite so simple. But “antifiction” is like a magnifying glass: the things it magnifies are real. To get back to where I started: look through the current “autofictions” for texts that are an author’s actual, dated diary. There are none. On the other hand, take Le Mausolée des amants, the diary of Hervé Guibert, who is a major autofiction writer in other texts, from Mes parents to Le Protocole compassionnel. His diary, which is a laboratory for his autofictions, unfolds along truthful lines, although Guibert erased the dates when he published it to make it literary.


The argument I have laid out is simple: now I have to back it up with evidence. I will then turn the debate around, because there is a sense of malaise in both directions. The diary repudiates fiction, but isn’t fiction also very uncomfortable when it tries to imitate the diary?


Evidence seems difficult to come by. Since I am stating a negative thesis, it should be up to my adversaries to give examples that disprove it. Michel Braud, a friend of mine who specializes in diaries, went down that road and came back empty-handed: there are a few autofictions that include the diary form, but he had to acknowledge that they were not real diaries. Even when they use the author’s real diary, it is always from a position of hindsight: the diary used is not a fiction, and the fiction is not produced under diary conditions. Gide’s Cahiers d’André Walter attribute an edited text from the actual diary of the (living) author to a (dead) fictional double, but these Cahiers are not the diary. This is an autofiction just like any other, not a fiction-diary. The latter would consist of someone keeping a diary in the real world of a life that he invents for himself. The only example we might find of that would be the product of insanity or lies.


On the insanity side, Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful novel Edith’s Diary (1977) springs to mind. It is not in diary form. In third-person narration with internal focalization, the novel follows the life of the heroine, a young woman who faces a series of misfortunes: a good-for-nothing son and a husband who cheats on her and then abandons her to start a new life, leaving her burdened with an ailing elderly uncle. We see her gradually change course and begin to “remake her life” as well, but we see it through her diary, bits of which are occasionally quoted. It has two registers: realism for certain aspects of life and fantasy for others, especially the son’s “success story.” This story starts out as a game, but she gets caught up in it and it begins to develop independently of reality, soon leading to the exact opposite and to the final catastrophe. This psychopathological study is of course a novelist’s invention, not a real document. But I have come across something similar: three datebooks from 1989 to 1990 that were purchased in a second-hand shop and deposited with the Association pour l’Autobiographie. The diarist, a woman of about fifty, sometimes had two sons and was going to a notary to divide an estate worth billions, and at other times lived alone and tried to get work as a cleaning lady.

* “La journal comme antifiction.” Poétique 149 (Feb. 2007): 3–14. Originally presented as the opening address for the “Diaris I Dietaris” colloquium, Department of Catalan Philology, University of Alicante, 10 Nov. 2005.




—from Philippe Lejeune, On Diary (selections); edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak, Katherine Durnin, translator (2009).

barthes & burroughs on writing and the demonic

How to repulse a demon (an old problem)? The demons, especially if they are demons of language (and what else could they be?) are fought by language. Hence I can hope to exorcise the demonic word which is breathed into my ears (by myself) if I substitute for it (if I have the gifts of language for doing so) another, calmer word (I yield to euphemism). Thus: I imagined I had escaped from the crisis at last, when behold — favored by a long car trip — a flood of language sweeps me away, I keep tormenting myself with the thought, desire, regret, and rage of the other; and I add to these wounds the discouragement of having to acknowledge that I am falling back, relapsing; but the French vocabulary is a veritable pharmacopoeia (poison on one side, antidote on the other): no, this is not a relapse, only a last soubresaut, a final convulsion of the previous demon. 

—from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments


Dear Allen,

Here is my latest attempt to write something saleable. All day I had been finding pretexts to avoid work, reading magazines, making fudge, cleaning my shot-gun, washing the dishes, going to bed with Kiki, tying the garbage up in neat parcels and putting it out for the collector (if you put it out in a waste basket or any container, they will steal the container every time. I was going to chain a bucket to my doorstep but it’s like too much trouble. So I put it out in packages), buying food for dinner, picking up a junk script. So finally I say: “Now you must work,” and smoke some tea and sit down and out it comes all in one piece like a glob of spit [. . .]

This is my saleable product. Do you dig what happens? It’s almost like automatic writing produced by a hostile, independent entity who is saying in effect, “I will write what I please.” At the same time when I try to pressure myself into organizing production, to impose some form on material, or even to follow a line (like continuation of novel), the effort catapults me into a sort of madness, where only the most extreme material is available to me. What a disaster to lose my typewriter, and no possibility of buying one this month. My financial position slides inexorably.

—from The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959



another diary from roland barthes . . .

“They say . . . that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.”

The Private Barthes

Posthumous publication of the theorist’s journals draws disapproval


By Benjamin Ivry


Nearly three decades after he was hit and fatally injured by a laundry van in a Paris street, the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes still enjoys rare prestige in his native land as well as in the English-speaking world. Generally considered the most readable of his generation of theoreticians, which also includes Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). To this rich legacy may be added two titles that appeared in France last month, amid some controversy: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook).


Journal de deuil, out from Barthes’s longtime publisher Éditions du Seuil, consists of private notes he made after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, at age 84. While neither text radically alters our understanding of Barthes, the Journal de deuil does add documentation about the writer’s deep attachment to his mother, from whose death, he told friends, he was never able to recover. Carnets du voyage en Chine, made also of impromptu jottings rather than the carefully worked out prose that readers of Barthes are accustomed to, is another unusually intimate glimpse into the writer’s daily life, even when bored and out of sorts.


Comparisons are inevitable between the Journal de deuil and La Chambre claire, Barthes’s 1980 book on photography, written as he mourned his mother and focusing on a childhood photo of the beloved Henriette. For almost two years, Barthes jotted down observations about his emotional distress, which, as he explains in the diary, he refuses to call bereavement because "that’s too psychoanalytical. I am not bereaved. I am in pain." As weeks go by, Barthes’s feelings remain as intense as ever, as these brief excerpts prove:


November 5th


Sad afternoon. Quick shopping. At the pastry shop (pointlessness) I buy an almond cake. Serving a customer, the little female employee says, "Voilà." That’s the word which I would say when I brought Mom something when I looked after her. Once, near the end, she half-unconsciously echoed, "Voilà" (I’m here, an expression which we used mutually during a whole lifetime). This employee’s remark brought tears to my eyes. I wept for a long time (after returning to the silent apartment).


November 19th


(Overturning of status) For months, I have been her mother. It’s as if I had lost my daughter (any greater suffering than that? I had never conceived it).


March 20th


They say (so Mrs. Panzera informs me) that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.


July 29


(Saw the Hitchcock film Under Capricorn) Ingrid Bergman (it was made around 1946). I don’t know why, and don’t know how to express it, but this actress, the body of this actress, moved me, has just touched something in me which reminds me of Mam. Her carnation, her lovely, utterly natural hands, an impression of freshness, a non-Narcissistic femininity.


Those intimate recollections, as well as others, were not only published last month but also read onstage during a special event at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon by that theater’s director, the actor Olivier Py. This exposure of personal grief angered Barthes’s longtime friend and former editor at Seuil, the philosopher François Wahl, who told Le Monde: "The publication of Journal de deuil would have positively revolted [Barthes] insofar as it violates his privacy." Wahl is no more enthused by the appearance of Carnets du voyage en Chine (published by Éditions Christian Bourgois), which he describes as "the epitome of an unwritten text, which in [Barthes’s] eyes was a veritable taboo. He possessed absolute respect for writing and its innate logic.". . .


—excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 20, 2009

The entire article is available here:


frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 

—Frederic Jameson

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.


7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).


—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.


“born to become a cult object”—umberto eco’s casablanca, or a deep-structured carnival of archetypes


Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage"


Umberto Eco (b. 1929) was born in Allesandra, Italy, and studied at the University of Turin. He has taught at universities in Turin, Milan, Florence and Bologna, and is a frequent academic visitor to the United States. In 1981, he achieved international fame with his novel, The Name of the Rose, which was both a bestseller and a literary success. Before that, he had established himself as an authority in the fields or semiotics, cultural studies and literary theory, with such publications as A Theory of Semiotics (1976) [first published in Italy 1975] and The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1981) [1979].


Semiotics is the general science of signs, of which linguistics, according to Saussure, is a subdivision. One consequence of this way of looking at language has been to encourage comparative study of literary and visual media, especially in the area of narrative. Another has been to break down the traditional prejudice of the custodians of "high culture" against the products of popular or mass culture. These tendencies are exhibited very clearly in Eco’s work, which is notable for its broad range of illustration and eclectic methodology. He is interested in the semiotics of blue jeans or the Superman story as in the dense polysemy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and this, combined with a lively, with style, make him one of the most accessible of critics in this structuralist tradition.


In "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," he turns his attention on one of the popular classics of Hollywood cinema, reading off its multiple meanings in a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes. In the famous Humphrey Bogart — Ingrid Bergman movie, Eco suggests, filmic archetypes (or clichés, as a more élitist critic might call them) are multiple to the point where they begin to "talk among themselves" and generate an intoxication excess of signification. This process, by which kitsch, in its reception by a finely attune audience, can allegedly achieve something approximating the sublimity of classic art, is a recurrent theme and subject of controversy in discussions of postmodernism.


"Casablance," first published in this form in 1984, is reprinted here from a collection of Eco’s occasional and journalistic essays, Faith in Fakes (1986) (published in the United States and (as a paperback) in Britain under the title, Travels in Hyperreality).


—David Lodge



"Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage"




"Was that artillery fire, or is it my heart pounding?"1 Whenever Casablanca2 is shown, at this point the audience reacts with an enthusiasm usually reserved for football. Sometimes a single word is enough: fans cry every time Bogey says "kid." Frequently the spectators quote the best lines before the actors say them.


According to traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art, if such an expression still has a meaning. In any case, if the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, or Antonioni are works of art, Casablanca represents a very modest aesthetic achievement. It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research into textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie.


What are the requirements for transforming a book or a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise. Naturally all these elements characters and episodes) must have some archetypical appeal, as we shall see. One can ask and answer questions about the various subway stations of New York or Paris only if these spots have become or have been assumed as mythical areas and such names as Canarsie Line or Vincennes-Neuilly stand not only for physical places but become the catalyzers of collective memories.


Curiously enough, a book can also inspire a cult even though it is a great work of art: both The Three Musketeers and The Divine Comedy rank among the cult books; and there are more trivia games among the fans of Dante than among the fans of Dumas. I suspect that a cult movie, on the contrary, must display some organic imperfections. It seems that the boastful Rio Bravo is a cult movie and the great Stagecoach is not.


I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole. In the case of a book one can unhinge it, so to speak, physically, reducing it to a series of excerpts. A movie, on the contrary, must be already ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself. A perfect movie, since it cannot be reread every time we want, from the point we choose, as happens with a book, remains inour memory as a whole, in the form of a central idea or emotion; only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.


However, it must have some quality. Let me say that it can be ramshackle from the production point of view (in that nobody knew exactly what was going to be done next) — as happened evidently with the Rocky Horror Picture Show — but it must display certain textual features, in the sense that, outside the conscious control of its creators, it becomes a sort of textual syllabus, a living example of living textuality. Its addressee must suspect it is not true that works are created by their authors. Works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors. A cult movie is the proof that, as literature comes from literature, cinema comes from cinema.


Which elements, in a movie, can be separated from the whole and adored for themselves? In order to go on with this analysis of Casablanca I should use some important semiotic categories, such as the ones (provided by the Russian Formalists)3 of theme and motif. I confess I find it very difficult to ascertain what the various Russian Formalists meant by motif. If — as Veselovsky says — a motif is the simplest narrative unit, then one wonders why ‘fire from heaven’ should belong to the same category as ‘the persecuted maid’ (since the former can be represented by an image, while the latter requires a certain narrative development).


It would be interesting to follow Tomashevsky and to look in Casablanca for free or tied and for dynamic or static motifs. We should distinguish between more or less universal narrative functions a la Propp4, visual stereotypes like the Cynic Adventurer, and more complex archetypical situations like the Unhappy Love. I hope someone will do this job, but here I will assume, more prudently (and borrowing the concept from research into Artificial Intelligence) the more flexible notion of "frame."


In The Role of the Reader I distinguished between common and intertextual frames. I meant by "common frame" data-structures for representing stereotyped situations such as dining at a restaurant or going to the railway station; in other words, a sequence of actions more or less coded by our normal experience. And by "intertextual frames" I meant stereotyped situations derived from preceding textual tradition and recorded by our encyclopedia, such as, for example, the standard duel between the sheriff and the bad guy or the narrative situation in which the hero fights the villain and wins, or more macroscopic textual situations, such as the story of the vierge souillée [dishonoured virgin] or the classic recognition scene (Bakhtin considered it a motif, in the sense of a chronotope).5 We could distinguish between stereotyped intertextual frames (for instance, the Drunkard Redeemed by Love) and stereotyped iconographical units (for instance, the Evil Nazi). But since even these iconographical units, when they appear in a movie, if they do not directly elicit an action, at least suggest its possible development, we can use the notion of intertextual frame to cover both.


Moreover, we are interested in finding those frames that not only are recognizable by the audience as belonging to a sort of ancestral intertextual tradition but that also display a particular fascination. "A suspect who eludes a passport control and is shot by the police" is undoubtedly an intertextual frame but it does not have a "magic" flavor. Let me address intuitively the idea of ‘magic’ frame. Let me define as "magic" those frames that, when they appear in a movie and can be separated from the whole, transform this movie into a cult object. In Casablanca we find more intertextual frames than "magic" intertextual frames. I will call the latter "intertextual archetypes."


The term "archetype" does not claim to have any particular psychoanalytic or mythic connotation,6 but serves only to indicate a preestablished and frequently reappearing narrative situation, cited or in some way recycled by innumerable other texts and provoking in the addressee a sort of intense emotion accompanied by the vague feeling of a déjà vu,7  that everybody yearns to see again. I would not say that an intertextual archetype is necessarily "universal." It can belong to a rather recent textual tradition, as with certain topoi of slapstick comedy. It is sufficient to consider it as a topos or standard situation that manages to be particularly appealing to a given cultural area or a historical period.


The making of Casablanca


"Can I tell you a story?" Ilse asks. Then she adds: "I don’t know the finish yet." Rick says: "Well, go on, tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along." Rick’s line is a sort of epitome of Casablanca itself. According to Ingrid Bergman, the film was apparently being made up at the same time that it was being shot. Until the last moment not even Michael Curtiz knew whether Ilse would leave with Rick or with Victor, and Ingrid Bergman seems so fascinatingly mysterious because she did not know at which man she was to look with greater tenderness.


This explains why, in the story, she does not, in fact, choose her fate: she is chosen.


When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere. Let us take a marginal but revealing example. Each time Laszlo orders something to drink (and it happens four times) he changes his choice: (1) Cointreau, (2) cocktail, (3) cognac, and (4) whisky (he once drinks champagne but he does not ask for it). Why such confusing and confused drinking habits for a man endowed with an ascetic temper? There is no psychological reason. My guess is that each time Curtiz was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.


Thus one is tempted to read Casablanca as T. S. Eliot read Hamlet, attributing its fascination not to the fact that it was a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate efforts) but to the imperfection of its composition. He viewed Hamlet as the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier versions of the story, and so the puzzling ambiguity of the main character was due to the author’s difficulty in putting together different topoi.


So both public and critics find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, but believe it is interesting because it is beautiful.


On a smaller scale the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia:8 the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.


Stop by stop


Every story involves one or more archetypes. To make a good story a single archetype is usually enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.


It would be nice to identify our archetypes scene by scene and shot by shot, stopping the tape at every relevant step. Every time I have scanned Casablanca with very cooperative research groups, the review has taken many hours. Furthermore when a team starts this kind of game, the instances of stopping the videotape increase proportionally with the size of the audience. Each member of the teamsees something that the others have missed, and many of them start to find in the movie even memories of movies made after Casablanca — evidently the normal situation for a cult movie, suggesting that perhaps the best deconstructive readings should be made of unhinged texts (or that deconstruction is simply a way of breaking up texts). However, I think that the first twenty minutes of the film represent a sort of review of the principal archetypes. Once they have been assembled, without any synthetic concern, then the story starts to suggest a sort of savage syntax of the archetypical elements and organizes them in multileveled oppositions. Casablanca looks like a musical piece with an extraordinarily long overture, where every theme is exhibited according to a monodic line. Only later does the symphonic work take place. In a way the first twenty minutes could be analyzed by a Russian Formalist and the rest by a Greimasian.9 Let me then try only a sample analysis of the first part. I think that a real text-analytical study of Casablanca is still to be made, and I offer only some hints to future teams of researchers, who will carry out, someday, a complete reconstruction of its deep textual structure.


1. First, African music, then the Marseillaise. Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.


2. Third genre. The globe: Newsreel. The voice even suggests the news report. Fourth genre: the odyssey of refugees. Fifth genre: Casablanca and Lisbon are, traditionally, hauts lieux [favourite places] for international intrigues. Thus in two minutes five genres are evoked.


3. Casablanca-Lisbon. Passage to the Promised Land (Lisbon-America). Casablanca is the Magic Door. We still do not know what the Magic Key is or by which Magic Horse one can reach the Promised Land.


4. "Wait, wait, wait." To make the passage one must submit to a Test. The Long Expectation. Purgatory situation.


5. "Deutschland über Alles." The German anthem introduces the theme of Barbarians.


6. The Casbah. Pépé le Moko. Confusion, robberies, violence, and repression.


7. Pétain (Vichy) vs. the Cross of Lorraine. See at the end the same opposition closing the story: Eau de Vichy vs. Choice of the Resistance. War Propaganda movie.


8. The Magic Key: the visa. It is around the winning of the Magic Key that passions are unleashed. Captain Renault mentioned: he is the Guardian of the Door, or the boatman of the Acheron to be conquered by a Magic Gift (money or sex).


9. The Magic Horse: the airplane. The airplane flies over Rick’s Café Américain, thus recalling the Promised Land of which the Café is the reduced model.


10. Major Strasser shows up. Theme of the Barbarians, and their emasculated slaves. "Je suis l’empire à la fin de la décadence/Qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs/En composant des acrostiques indolents. . . ."10


11. "Everybody comes to Rick’s." By quoting the original play,11 Renault introduces

the audience to the Café. The interior: Foreign Legion (each character has a different nationality and a different story to tell, and also his own skeleton in the closet), Grand Hotel (people come and people go, and nothing ever happens), Mississippi River Boat, New Orleans Brothel (black piano player), the Gambling Inferno in Macao or Singapore (with Chinese women), the Smugglers’ Paradise, the Last Outpost on the Edge of the Desert. Rick’s place is a magic circle where everything can happen — love, death, pursuit, espionage, games of chance, seductions, music, patriotism. Limited resources and the unity of place, due to the theatrical origin of the story, suggested an admirable condensation of events in a single setting. One can identify the usual paraphernalia of at least ten exotic genres.


12. Rick slowly shows up, first by synecdoche (his hand), then by metonymy (the check).12 The various aspects of the contradictory (plurifilmic) personality of Rick are introduced: the Fatal Adventurer, the Self-Made Businessman (money is money), the Tough Guy from a gangster movie, Our Man in Casablanca (international intrigue), the Cynic. Only later he will be characterized also as the Hemingwayan Hero (he helped the Ethiopians and the Spaniards against fascism). He does not drink. This undoubtedly represents a nice problem, for later Rick must play the role of the Redeemed Drunkard and he has to be made a drunkard (as a Disillusioned Lover) so that he can be redeemed. But Bogey’s face sustains rather well this unbearable number of contradictory psychological features.


13. The Magic Key, in person: the transit letters. Rick receives them from Peter Lorre and from this moment everybody wants them: how to avoid thinking of Sam Spade and of The Maltese Falcon?13


14. Music Hall. Mr. Ferrari. Change of genre: comedy with brilliant dialogue. Rick is now the Disenchanted Lover, or the Cynical Seducer.


15. Rick vs. Renault. The Charming Scoundrels.


16. The theme of the Magic Horse and the Promised Land returns.


17. Roulette as the Game of Life and Death (Russian Roulette that devours fortunes and can destroy the happiness of the Bulgarian Couple, the Epiphany of Innocence).


The Dirty Trick: cheating at cards. At this point the Trick is an Evil one but later it will be a Good one, providing a way to the Magic Key for the Bulgarian bride.


18. Arrest and tentative escape of Ugarte. Action movie.


19. Laszlo and Ilse. The Uncontaminated Hero and La Femme Fatale. Both in white — always; clever opposition with Germans, usually in black. In the meeting at Laszlo’s table, Strasser is in white, in order to reduce the opposition. However, Strasser and Ilse are Beauty and the Beast. The Norwegian agent: spy movie.


20. The Desperate Lover and Drink to Forget.


21. The Faithful Servant and his Beloved Master. Don Quixote and Sancho.


22. Play it (again, Sam). Anticipated quotation of Woody Allen.14


23. The long flashback begins. Flashback as a content and flashback as a form. Quotation of the flashback as a topical stylistic device. The Power of Memory. Last Day in Paris. Two Weeks in Another Town. Brief Encounter. French movie of the 1930’s (the station as quai des brumes15).


24. At this point the review of the archetypes is more or less complete. There is still the moment when Rick plays the Diamond in the Rough (who allows the Bulgarian bride to win),16 and two typical situations: the scene of the Marseillaise and the two lovers discovering that Love Is Forever. The gift to the Bulgarian bride (along with the enthusiasm of the waiters), the Marseillaise, and the Love Scene are three instances of the rhetorical figure of Climax, as the quintessence of Drama (each climax coming obviously with its own anticlimax).


Now the story can elaborate upon its elements.


The first symphonic elaboration comes with the second scene around the roulette table. We discover for the first time that the Magic Key (that everybody believed to be only purchasable with money) can in reality be given only as a Gift, a reward for Purity. The Donor will be Rick. He gives (free) the visa to Laszlo. In reality there is also a third Gift, the Gift Rick makes of his own desire, sacrificing himself. Note that there is no gift for Ilse, who, in some way, even though innocent, has betrayed two men. The Receiver of the Gift is the Uncontaminated Laszlo. By becoming the Donor, Rick meets Redemption. No one impure can reach the Promised Land. But Rick and Renault redeem themselves and can reach the other Promised Land, not America (which is Paradise) but the Resistance, the Holy War (which is a glorious Purgatory). Laszlo flies directly to Paradise because he has already suffered the ordeal of the underground. Rick, moreover, is not the only one who accepts sacrifice. The idea of sacrifice pervades the whole story, Ilse’s sacrifice in Paris when she abandons the man she loves to return to the wounded hero, the Bulgarian bride’s sacrifice when she is prepared to give herself to help her husband, Victor’s sacrifice when he is prepared to see Ilse with Rick to guarantee her safety.


The second symphonic elaboration is upon the theme of the Unhappy Love. Unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilse and cannot have her. Unhappy for Ilse, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him. Unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilse. The interplay of unhappy loves produces numerous twists and turns. In the beginning Rick is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse leaves him. Then Victor is unhappy because he does not understand why Ilse is attracted to Rick. Finally Ilse is unhappy because she does not understand why Rick makes her leave with her husband.


These unhappy loves are arranged in a triangle. But in the normal adulterous triangle there is a Betrayed Husband and a Victorious Lover, while in this case both men are betrayed and suffer a loss.


In this defeat, however, an additional element plays a part, so subtly that it almost escapes the level of consciousness. Quite subliminally a hint of Platonic Love is established. Rick admires Victor, Victor is ambiguously attracted by the personality of Rick, and it seems that at a certain point each of the two is playing out the duel of sacrifice to please the other. In any case, as in Rousseau’s Confessions, the woman is here an intermediary between the two men. She herself does not bear any positive value (except, obviously, Beauty). The whole story is a virile affair, a dance of seduction between MaleHeroes.


From now on the film carries out the definitive construction of its intertwined triangles, to end with the solution of the Supreme Sacrifice and of the Redeemed Bad Guys. Note that, while the redemption of Rick has long been prepared, the redemption of Renault is absolutely unjustified and comes only because this was the final requirement the movie had to meet in order to be a perfect Epos of Frames.


The archetypes hold a reunion


Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there, because each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, and because human beings live not "real" life but life as stereotypically portrayed in previous films: Casablanca carries the sense of déjà vu to such a degree that the addressee is ready to see in it what happened after it as well. It is not until To Have and Have Not that Bogey plays the role of the Hemingway hero, but here he appears "already" loaded with Hemingwayesque connotations simply because Rick fought in Spain. Peter Lorre trails reminiscences of Fritz Lang, Conrad Veidt’s German officer emanates a faint whiff of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He is not a ruthless, technological Nazi; he is a nocturnal and diabolical Caesar.


Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is "movies." And this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory.


For it stages the powers of Narrativity in its natural state, before art intervenes to tame it. This is why we accept the way that characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, that conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation when a spy is approaching, that bar girls cry at the sound of the Marseillaise . . .


When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.


Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.


Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken in place of men. This, alone, is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.


The charged cult


The structure of Casablanca helps us understand what happens in later movies born in order to become cult objects.


What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes. These are "postmodern" movies, where the quotation of the topos is recognized as the only way to cope with the burden of our filmic encyclopedic expertise. Think for instance of Bananas,17 with its explicit quotation of the Odessa steps from Eisenstein Potemkin. In Casablanca one enjoys quotation even though one does not recognize it, and those who recognize it feel as if they all belonged to the same little clique. In Bananas those who do not catch the topos cannot enjoy the scene and those who do simply feel smart.


Another (and different) case is the quotation of the topical duel between the black Arab giant with his scimitar and the unprotected hero, in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you remember, the topos suddenly turns into another one, and the unprotected hero becomes in a second The Fastest Gun in the West. Here the ingenuous viewer can miss the quotation though his enjoyment will then be rather slight; and real enjoyment is reserved for the people accustomed to cult movies, who know the whole repertoire of "magic" archetypes. In a way, Bananas works for cultivated "cinephiles" while Raiders works for Casablanca-addicts. The third case is that of E.T., when the alien is brought outside in a Halloween disguise and meets the dwarf coming from The Empire Strikes Back. You remember that E.T. starts and runs to cheer him (or it). Here nobody can enjoy the scene if he does not share, at least, the following elements of intertextual competence:


(1) He must know where the second character comes from (Spielberg citing Lucas),18

(2) He must know something about the links between the two directors, and

(3) He must know that both monsters have been designed by Rambaldi and that, consequently, they are linked by some form of brotherhood.


The required expertise is not only intercinematic, it is intermedia, in the sense that the addressee must know not only other movies but all the mass media gossip about movies. This third example presupposes a "Casablanca universe" in which cult has become the normal way of enjoying movies. Thus in this case we witness an instance of metacult, or of cult about cult — a Cult Culture.


It would be semiotically uninteresting to look for quotations of archetypes in Raiders or in Indiana Jones: they were conceived within a metasemiotic culture, and what the semiotician can find in them is exactly what the directors put there. Spielberg and Lucas are semiotically nourished authors working for a culture of instinctive semioticians.


With Casablanca the situation is different. So Casablanca explains Raiders, but Raiders does not explain Casablanca. At most it can explain the new ways in which Casablanca will be received in the next years.


It will be a sad day when a too smart audience will read Casablanca as conceived

by Michael Curtiz after having read Calvino19 and Barthes. But that day will come. Perhaps we have been able to discover here, for the last time, the Truth.


Après nous, le déluge.20



NOTES (from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader)


1 Like the more famous line, "Play it again, Sam" (actually "Play it, Sam") this quotation is not quite accurate. Ingrid Bergman’s words in the film are: "Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?"


2 The action of Casablanca (made in 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz) takes place early in the Second World War, when Morocco was controlled by the Vichy French government. The American Rick (Humphrey Bogart) runs a café-night club in Casablanca which is a place of passage for refugees trying to get exit visas to the United States, usually by bribing the Prefect of Police, Renault. A Czech Resistance leader, Victor Laszlo, turns up with his wife, Ilse (Ingrid Bergman), who had a love affair with Rick in Paris just before the German Occupation, when she believed her husband to be dead. On discovering that he was alive, she parted from Rick without explanation. Bitterly hurt by this experience, Rick is at first hostile to Ilse in Casablanca, but on learning the truth, and that she still loves him, chivalrously helps her and Laszlo to escape the clutches of the Gestapo chief Strasser, at considerable risk to himself. In the final sequence, Rick and the implausibly reformed Renault go off to join the Free French.


3 A reference to what were in effect two Russian groupings that flourished in the pre- and immediately post-revolutionary years, the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which included Roman Jakobson (see headnote to essay, p. 30, in from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (1998)), and the Opoyaz group based in St Petersburg, including Viktor Shklovsky. Motifs were particularly memorable and "defamiliarized" symbols to be considered aside from their position within narrative frameworks or "themes."


4 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928).


5 Chronotope is a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin to analyse the ways in which time and space are represented and related in narrative.


6 As it does in the work of Carl Jung and critics influenced by him, such as Maud Bodkin and Northrop Frye. (See sections 14, 15 and 31 of Lodge (ed.), 20th Century Literary Criticism.)


7 Something already seen.


8 Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), Spanish art nouveau architect best known for his (still uncompleted) Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona.


9 See note 3, p. 342. above.


10 "I am the empire at the end of its decline/Watching the great white barbarians pass/While composing idle acrostics." (I do not know the source of this quotation.)


11 Casablanca was based on an unproduced stage play entitled, Everybody Comes to Rick’s.


12 See note 1, p. 56, above.


13 Another Hollywood classic, made in 1934, also starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.


14 Play It Again, Sam is the title of a film made by Woody Allen in 1972, about a neurotic film critic obsessed with Humphrey Bogart.


15 Literally, "quay (or railway platform) of fogs," this was the title of a classic French film, directed by Marcel Carné in 1938.


16 To be precise, Rick ensures that her husband wins at the roulette table, thus ensuring that the couple can buy their exit visas from Renault for cash, instead of the girl having to sleep with the police chief to obtain them.


17 Film made by Woody Allen in 1971.


18 E.T. was made by Stephen Spielberg; The Empire Strikes Backby George Lucas.


19 Italo Calvino ( 1923-86), Italian experimental novelist.


20 "After us, the deluge" — Proverbial expression variously attributed to Madame la Pompadour and Louis XV of France.



—from David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Harlow, England: Longman, 1988.