The Dimensions of Art
On Udi Aloni’s film Forgiveness
Alain Badiou

Author’s Bio

This film presents, as does every film, visible two-dimensional images and audible successions—voices, music, and sounds. These are the evident materials of the film’s composition.

Now, I would like to examine a slightly different idea: an idea that proposes this film as a four-dimensional universe. As an object, insofar as you see it and hear it, the film has three dimensions—two in the visible and one in the auditory. But insofar as the film constructs an artistic idea, insofar as it is capable of transforming its spectator, or its voyeur, of modifying our thought, yours or mine, the film in reality has four dimensions.

I name these four dimensions: the historical dimension, the narrative dimension, the psychoanalytic dimension, and the cultural dimension. The objective of the film, as art work, is to unite these four dimensions, to make them hold together. The artistic dimension is thus like a fifth dimension, achieved by knotting together the four others.

I will now examine the four dimensions one by one.

The historical dimension is, evidently, a meditation on Israel and Palestine. Udi Aloni’s fundamental idea is that “Palestine” is the name that prevents Israel, as it exists, from becoming the incarnation of a Jewish universality in the eyes of the world. But just the same, “Israel” is taken as a hateful word of separation, or object of blind violence, and “Israel” is what prevents Palestine from becoming the incarnation of Arab universality in the eyes of the world. Udi Aloni does not inscribe his film into a prefabricated or abstract vision of the division or conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The question of war or of the sharing of territory is not his main problem. Because my friend Udi thinks that Palestine and the Palestinians are inscribed into the very essence of Israel. The powerful image expressing this idea is that dead Palestinians, their personal effects, their debris, constitute the soil upon which a psychiatric hospital was constructed in a village destroyed during the 1947 war. That is to say that from its origin, what troubles and affects Israel as spirit, as thought, what cannot be torn from it, is precisely the subterranean – fundamental – presence of the absolute wrong done to the Palestinians. It is thus impossible to think the becoming of Israel, just as it is impossible to think what could be left of the becoming of Palestine, under the rule of separation, entrenchment, and walls. On the contrary, the final scene, which depicts an attempt to cure the spiritual malady that Israel, as it exists, has introduced into what constitutes Jewish being, is a scene of descent into the subterranean, a scene of purification via avowal of origin, a scene from whence another history could begin, precisely because at last, nothing requires separation and war anymore. It was said, pronounced, that from its origins the earth itself could have been shared; that it had to be shared. And thus, the knot of daily life that might unite Palestinians and Israelis had no reasonable reason to be interminably divided.

I want to insist on the following point: what this film tells us, its Idea, is in no way a political thesis in the current sense of the term. The truth is inscribed, here, in art. The truth is an effect of art. The film shows in the same shot what is, what might have been, and what should be. What is: separation, war and violence. What might have been: shared love of place as powerful universal value, combining heterogeneous elements in an unprecedented music (music and dance, in Udi Aloni’s film, speak from the interior of what is to attest for what might have been). And finally what should be: a new declaration that would allow to start again, and which the title of the film, “Forgiveness”, recapitulates. Once spoken within the movement of what exists, the original sin loses its historical power. There is no longer a need to repeat the separation created by lies. In combining their action on an undivided territory the Jewish universality and the Arab universality would have a pacifying and creative effect on the world – what Mao Zedong called “a spiritual atomic bomb.”

Let us move on to the narrative dimension. The film, after all, also tells a story. The story of a young Jew, son of a German Jew, living in the United States. In revolt against his father’s sterile silence, the son enlists in the Israeli army, in order to finally confront real enemies, instead of historical phantoms. He will kill the child of a woman he loves. He will go insane, become mute, virtually criminal, or suicidal, when the possible repetition of the murder he committed looms over the child of another woman he loves. The women in this film always come from elsewhere, from the other apparent world, from the Arab world. The film exposes this frightening logic of repetition of that which has not been spoken.. But the film also rejects this, by engaging in the process of purification by the return to the origin. The narration accepts ordinary materials in their ordinary order: revolt, violence and war, love, crime and madness, suicide attempts and ultimate salvation. We have here all the elements for a melodrama. And in fact, we have it, this melodrama. Nevertheless, this second dimension, this melodrama, carries with it the first dimension, since each of its terms is also a stage for the inscription of the subject (the young hero) within the historical problem in which he is both situated and transformed. It is here that Udi Aloni takes up the old practice of the coming-of-age novel. And, as always in this kind of novel, individual decisions are also symbols for historical and political choices. Thus the two possible endings that the film virtuosically sets forth. Either the young man, symbolizing Israel, accepts this memory of having been a murderer, and peace and reconciliation become possible, or the young man encloses himself in silence, oblivion, and repetition, thus suiciding. This is to say that continuing in the mode of its contemporary political orientation is the real death threat against Israel – a historical suicide.

The third dimension, the psychoanalytic, draws its connection to the two earlier dimensions by virtue of metaphor. Just as the historical underground of the Israelis’, and thus of the Jews’, spiritual malady is the hidden Palestine, the son’s insanity finds its secret origin in what is obscured and hidden in the father. One of the film’s major themes is that the contemporary problem resides, without a doubt, in the recognition of the fathers by the sons, but even more forcefully in the recognition of the sons by the fathers.

In this regard, the essential scene is perhaps the confrontation between the two possible fathers of the hero, who are both, as their tattoos show, survivors of deportation and extermination. On one side, we have the real father, the German musician who wants to forget – in America – the historical destiny of the Jews. On the other side, we have the true father, the asylum’s craziest old man, guardian of the depths of the earth (“Well said, old mole!” says this prophesied Marxist), who knows that denying Palestinian deaths also forbids all active or peace-bringing memory of the camps and of extermination. The choice of obeying one or the other opens onto the son’s fundamental decision. A decision that also signifies the following: to continue on the path of separation, of war, of wrongs done to the Palestinians, means to give sinister assurance that the millions of dead Jews in fact and forever died for nothing, no matter how many monuments are dedicated to them. In truth, all that can be dedicated to the dead is the living monument of a reconciled Palestine.

Udi Aloni does not shy away from any allusive complexity. This is the difficult charm of his work. Here, we have at once Oedipus, who must kill his father in order to accomplish his destiny, and Freud, with his famous dream of the son who burns under the impotent eyes of the father, who—the father— is incapable of really understanding what the son really means when he says to him, “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?” And is it not true today, that everywhere in the world, our sons are burning under our very eyes, in general incomprehension? But we also have Oedipus at Colonnus, for the dead Palestinian girl is a new Antigone, who both haunts the son as the incarnation of his crime and gently leads him toward purification. But the film is also a very contemporary plea for the subjective operations of psychoanalysis against the objective and memory-less doctrine of chemical medication. To cure the young soldier the old Jewish doctor – played with astonishing naturalness by a great Palestinian actor – opposes as best he can his personal understanding and proximity to the official directives that prescribe a good syringe-full of oblivion serum. He yields to prescribing psychiatric medication by weakness, by virtue of an intrigue with the State (this power struggle is symbolized by a scene of trivial sex with a functionary). We see, here, a connection to the first dimension: on this bloody earth, to forget the initial wrong, to use chemicals against thought, amounts to prepare an infinite repetition of separating violence. What would force destiny toward the direction of salvation would be neither the father’s newfound tenderness for his son, nor the doctor’s too-easy sympathy for him, but rather the voice of the unconscious itself, individual and historical, that of the madman, or of the prophet, who knows that it is underneath the hospital, into the depths of the earth, that one must go to interrupt the fatal destiny of separation, to reinstate a chance for love.

The fourth dimension, which I name “cultural” is, from the start, more polyphonic. It consists in saturating the narration with what we could call artistic and cultural implants, that come from at least four worlds, and in giving, as figure of the country and more generally of the world, to see and to hear that the road toward salvation passes by this multiplicity itself, and never by warmongering palaver about culture shocks. This is not some soft principle of tolerance or respect for difference. It is about directly valorizing the fact that a contemporary universality can belong to no single heritage. Rather, it is something like a braid of knots, some tight, some less so. And it is expressly because Israel or Palestine are the names of an exemplary knot, where distinct heritages can nevertheless play together, that it is here that a universal dwelling, wholly new, could and must begin.

The four cultural worlds cited in Udi’s film are: old European artistic creation, the Arab world’s subtle and almost timeless savoir-vivre and love of life, American modernity, and the irreplaceable spirituality of the Jews. Extraordinary scenes show the interpenetration, the collision, the simultaneous giving-birth, of these worlds that are all implicated in the Israeli-Palestinian turmoil. Let us cite the song of the Palestinian woman who interrupts and subjugates Israeli nightclub dancers, or the dance of the soldiers in the synagogue, as though they had been seized, they, the oppressive warriors, by a loving drunkenness destined to the entire earth. Let us also cite the scene that touches me personally, in which the hero, accompanying himself on the piano, sings a Schumann lied about forgiveness in love, his face streaming with tears. Because in this respect the essential questions of the film– the father, Germany, the extermination of the Jews, Israel, Palestine, the universality of art and the difficulty of love-merge in a whole so complex that a solitary and disarmed subject cannot endure it without coming apart.

You see to what degree Udi Aloni’s film is ramified, as each of the elements of its construction is grafted onto others, in such a way as to make narrative fiction also become artistic allegory, psychoanalytic interrogation, historical meditation, and spiritual proposition. And that, despite the fact that emotional elements circulate freely in the film, each spectator is called, not to separate – as I have done – the ingredients of the film’s composition, but to receive the impact of a situation figured by a film, by an absorbing melodrama, and thus undergoes an evidence as shared as well as indivisible.

I would like to conclude in saying also that the film is essentially optimistic. As repetitive and despairing as a situation can be, there exists with in it, within its very entanglement, the chance for a respite. It is this conviction that the film orders. In this sense it belongs in what I have called affirmationism, in the hope of proposing thus a motto for the art to come. The doctrine according to which ideas generated by art do not so much carry a judgment upon the world as they indicate the point from which the world could be transfigured. Udi’s filmic figurations of Israel and Palestine are affirmationist in this sense. They indicate the point where separation could be overcome, they announce the power of Palestisrael, or of Israpalestine, to become the immanent transfiguration of the disaster itself.

Thank you, dear Udi.

translated from the French by Ariana Reines.

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