Saturday, August 7, 2010

Touching the Void, and Our Extreme Orders

Yesterday, I watched, with treachery, the wild survivor's tale that is Touching the Void, directed by Kevin MacDonald. The structure of the documentary is part raw story-telling and part dramatic reenactment. More specifically, one part is devised of portraits of the three climbers', with each divulging their perspective of what happened; this provides the streaming narrative for the documentary. There is a calm backdrop for these moments that undoubtedly connotes that they’re safe from harm now. The other part has about it the style of amateur recording, taken in the unlikely midst of Siula Grande, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes; it is a shaky, frantic attempt at recapturing the memory of a climber, Joe Simpson, who, after falling 100 feet into the crevice of a glacier and breaking his leg, must drag himself, somehow, back to a camp that may not even be there anymore.

Aside from being simply rapt by the battle to descend the glacier (quite an apt metaphor for story-telling), I was also drawn more and more to all the juxtapositions that, intentionally or not, helped strengthen the narrative. Juxtapositions through dueling landscapes, temperaments, climates, and composition, to name a few. There's a moment near the end where Joe is experiencing what I can only surmise as actually dying (don't worry, I'm not giving anything away; clearly, Joe's beautiful and healthy face is a current, constant presence), and this is when I really started to notice a doubling taking effect: sky and mountain, snow and rock, wind and rain, man and landscape, life and death. On a more macro level, narrator and event, me and them, peril and safety, past and present.

As I started to make all these tautological connections, it dawned on me that language is devised of and arranged similarly. Milton's famous beginning to Paradise Lost, "Of man's first disobedience and the fruit," helps give rise to dichotomies so effervescent, our world's artistic formation is not only based on, but also dependent on such foils of abstract and concrete things. Need I remind of William Carlos Williams' maxim, No ideas but in things or Wallace Stevens' final soliloquy, Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself. The words we choose to use seem ballasted by the things we choose to become--or not become. It's a Cartesian paradox, to think in order to be, to be in order to speak, to speak in order to become, to become in order to think anew, so that an opposite of thinking--speaking--becomes the aim.

There's that classic opening to Macbeth with the three witches that defines our current understanding of paradox: fair is foul and foul is fair. Joe can only keep our attention because the slow convergence of fair and foul, life and death, god and nothing, health and its reduction, strike a chord with our own morbid curiosities. We think therefore we are; we witness therefore we think we know. We keep thinking we’ll get further, that we’ll find the god damn camp, even with our mortal limits shadowing close behind us.

Since I was five, I've dealt with existential crises. The first time it happened, I remember I was in the cafeteria drinking the rest of my chocolate milk over a garbage pail. I felt a tug somewhere irretrievable in me and had a very strong urge to cry. Not a regular cry either. There was something almost rapturous about it. That if I didn't cry at that moment, I would be silent forever. Dramatic for a five year old (or a twenty-something year old), I know. The point is, I was shaken by my existence. I've never been one to ask, What does it all mean? or Why are we here? I find such questions too obvious a set up, too desperately reaching for the ornate reason. I'm not religious, and I've come to a point where I barely respect those that are. Be that as it may, however, I felt shaken by a force seemingly outside of my control. (I did not cry.)

There was this moment in the documentary where Joe, in dragging his broken-limbed body to a dream of safety (irresistable Auden moment), said that the command to survive in his head was so strong that it felt like it was not issuing from him, but from a completely alien register. Joe made it clear earlier as he looked into the deep blue void of the crevice that he did not believe in God, that when you're dead, you're dead. It seems obvious that the push to survive is within us--somewhere--the way the push to survive is so primary an intelligence for a cat. This account, mixed with his account of dying later, struck me most of all about the movie. Not as much the perseverance, admirable as it was, but the involuntary psycho-ticks that so prompted and desensitized his excruciating physical state. Which, again, is another example of the power of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition of a supreme order.

Every writer, every artist, every single person experiences two worlds at once, that of mind and body. Religious people are, for the most part, assured that it's only their bodies that are dying. There is again at work a concrete and an abstract way of thinking and being, hence my mention of Cartesian paradox earlier. Think to be, speak to think to know to be. Every day of our lives (probably) we greet somebody, and pierce that membrane of being in order to communicate. Perhaps an exchange occurs. We retreat; we go back into our own wilderness. Joe, and so many other lost climbers and explorers with more unlucky outcomes, was stuck at the scariest merging of worlds. The great expanse of the Andes with great fluxes of weather; the sky overhanging indifferently above his reduced body; the declining health of his body; and lest we forget his two minds (another Stevens nod) which were at once fear and doom, and yet something as foundering as the involuntary voice. Everything about perilous thinking feels ghostly. I'll argue that the mind, with its endless exposures and secrets, is always haunting our choices. The combination of physicality and mentality that a movie like Touching the Void presents gives me the feeling that every single thing we experience can be broken into two vast realms. And how else can our minds organize any of it than by flashing images of sky or mountain, life or death, city and nature, you and I. Always we are moved equally by what something is, and the shock of what it cannot be.

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