….and in theory: towards a superficial structuralism – Raymond Durgnat

A little more clearly than most films, Black Narcissus presents as (I) a mosaic (i.e., a configuration of interwoven configurations, some uncompleted but strongly implied); (II) a chameleon (changing contexts pick out different patterns); (III) a Rorschach (to review the film is to review its audiences); and (IV) a palimpsest (in terms of its genetic structures: always remembering that the unconscious is regularly less hegemonic than the openly displayed). A short, verbal review runs many risks, in its omissions, its ‘abbreviation’ of dramatic content into ‘themes’, its telegrammatic reduction of topics to attitudes. But the risks are worth running.

1. In addition to the major conflict, most of these themes arise, less or more clearly, in Rumer Godden’s novel (1939), to which Powell and Pressburger’s film is remarkably faithful.

2. “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. Yes, but: Western balance and Eastern schizo-exoticism are ‘sisters under the skin’. The dialogue hints that children, conspicuous throughout, are everywhere strangers in adult cultures. When the Orientals, reciprocally, find these nuns ‘absurdist’, so do we, and, with them, the West. This reciprocity of alienation relativises, but doesn’t nihilise, Western humanism. It acknowledges effective limits to Western affirmations, but less, perhaps, than Renoir’s The River (also from Rumer Godden and stylistically this film’s ‘nephew’, albeit from the neo-realist branch of the family).

3. Tradition tragic visions. Hubris: the best is the enemy of the good (but still nobler?) Irony: Sister Clodagh flees the sneaky mediocrity of normal (or bourgeois?) life for spiritual nobility; but the East is both wildly non-bourgeois (with its weirdly scattered families) and bourgeois too (the eponymous scent comes from the Army and Navy Stores). Hamartia: Sister Clodagh’s pride and fallibility are less the ’cause’ of tragedy than a normal, reasonable, condition of all human action whatsoever. Psychological drama is not quashed but outweighed by a pre-psychological tragic spirit. Universality: the plot mechanism indicts neither Christian belief nor Eastern feudalism nor peasant paranoia, but contemplates the intrication of right and wrong, effort and failure. Fate: not one flaw, not the system, but attitudes all round, and a dash of bad luck, precipitate the tragedy. Even Mr. Dean, the ‘natural’, forceful, man is ‘flawed’, as he torments Sister Clodagh, meekly loses her, cries, “I don’t love anybody!”.

4. Under the drama, archaeo-psychological structures lurk. Sisters Clodagh and Ruth are Jekyll and Hyde, character anagrams.

5. More pervasive is childishness, its structuration anticipating the parent-adult-child patters of Eric Berne’s Games People Play. The parent (authority, coping) figures include Sister Clodagh, Mr. Dean, the Old General and the holy man. The children include Sister Ruth (jealous, clumsy, hysterical, rebellious), the Young General (charming, irresponsible), Kanchi. Parental vengeance for a supposedly ‘poisoned’ child is a major conflict. Eastern ‘schizo-excess’ is a perpetual childhood, with magic sexuality: charming, glittering, whimsical, absolutist, volatile, dangerous. Two rival sets of adult ego-ideals exist: Sister Clodagh (confidently motherly, as fiancée then as Sister Superior) and Mr. Dean (worldly, managing, but infantile when drunk).

6. Beside these sturdily responsible women, the East is a land of fairy-tale with princes, a beggar-maid, toylike costumes.

7/8. Appropriately for the Gandhi-era, it’s an empire-building, or empire-relinquishing, tale. But equally it’s a post-modernist stream-of-consciousness, with hues, details, resurgent flashbacks. In Rumer Godden, Virginia Woolf meets Rudyard Kipling.

9. Problems of Liberal Leadership. Not “The Nun Who Would Be Queen”, not quite “I Was Colonel Blimp’s God-Daughter”; rather, the reasonable errors of leadership (cf. John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex).

10. Tales of Morale and Imagination (cf. A Matter of Life and Death, The Queen’s Guards).

11. The English Character: as quietly mad as ever.

12. An upper-class feeling-tone: upper lips gently stiff, reserve, duty, emptiness. Echoes of David Lean: delicate skies, winds, heavy spaces, melancholy heroines (and Ann Todd’s nun-white face). Strange natives (in Lean: Japanese, Arabs, Irish).

13. Ealing Ends Here: a non-authoritarian good will, mob violence defused.

14. The Lonely Team: before The Small Back Room, this wind-haunted palace.

15. Tensions of Love and Order: this convent is a welfare state, the white nuns are emissaries of A Matter of Life and Death’s pallid Heaven.

16. The Church of England: eclectic, pragmatic, tolerant – a nest of Laodiceans? (Revelations 3:15-16).

17/18. A Bresson film, with rainbows? (in style, exteriority; in content, interiority, and more spiritual than psychological). But also a Sternberg film: agnostic, desolate, internally blank, dementedly ornamental.

19. Mysticism: Lost Horizon in counter-change.

20. Exoticism against Austerity: after the Pacific War, the East regains its exoticism. (Another improving woman meets an Oriental despot in Anna and the King of Siam, 1946). Not ‘bourgeois realisms’, but its left wing components, deplored by Powell and Pressburger’s overlaps with Kordaesque escapism and a flight from social realism.

21/22. Melodrama and le cinéma de qualité. It’s a lush woman’s film with art-house (i.e, middle-class, middlebrow) appeal, like The Red Shoes.

23. The team of woman, between conscription (The Gentle Sex, 1943) and vocation (The Feminine Touch, 1956).

24. A Feminist Tragedy: are nuns dupes of Christian patriarchy, and/or foremothers of feminist separatism? Have we a 50s moral, A Woman’s Noblest Enemy is Her Vocation, as per The Red Shoes?, or is it this: The Six Strong Spinsters, with a resolute end? There’s even an overt discussion: was Christ a Man or a Person?

25. Kanchi: a woman’s sexual self-fantasy, the prostitute Cinderella. She’s an orphan hintedly ‘prostituted’ to her protective but dismissive white ‘father’; she then provokes her prince. Kanchi and the Young General: the sexual children in a fairy-tale, costumed by Diaghilev. (Isn’t Jean Simmons’ style influenced by that other child-woman-Jezebel, Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez?)

26. A woman’s angle on the Eternal Male (or six faces of Adam). Mr. Dean as (a) muscular sex object, (b) practical virility (cf. Kieron Moore mesmerizing spinsters in A Man About the House, 1947), (c) gentle, relinquishing father. (d) The Young General as a male peacock-sovereign child: disarmingly trusting, loveably wilful. (e) The Old General as a this-worldly Providence, somewhere between eccentricity and realpolitik, Candy and Lermontov. (f) The holy man as the Cold Father, as unloving as Peeping Tom’s.

27. Faith and Friendship Are All that Earth Allows. When the team loses out, outsiders become insiders too. So Kanchi the ‘gypsy’ marries her ‘gentleman’, disproving the Puritan work ethic. Ayah, the loony caretaker (and para-Cockney landlady), is dear old pals with Mr. Dean.

28. Crisis of the British Male: David Farrar figures amidst the 40s British pantheon of Magnificent Brutes (Mason, Granger, Michael Rennie, Maxwell Reed). 50s males were gentler, cheerier, or more wistful (Bogarde, Gregson, Finch). Farrar’s final scenes prefigure, a little surprisingly, that diminuendo into sensitivity.

29. Philosophy by Technicolour: cf. The River.

30. Battle of the Landscapes: vertiginously vertical is this edge of the world, realm of abyssal extremes. Clodagh’s homeland is more even: foot stools, trout streams, a patchwork of green fields, but they gradually mount in verticality and unevenness until that pitch black doorway through which Clodagh loses Con. That dark arch preludes Sister Ruth’s lost, mad, labyrinthine creep around.

31. The most useful psychoanalysts: Melanie Klein (on draughts, mothers, grandmothers). Ireland is Grandmother’s land, the Himalayas are Grandfather’s. Adrian Stokes on architecture as a woman’s body (this palace was built for a harem, abandoned to a comic loon, now ‘sublimated’).

32. All our old friends: the return of the repressed; the terrible building; Ariel/Caliban; chastity/sexuality; philanthropy/irresponsibility; a host story without ghosts; garden/wilderness …

Many more themes could be isolated out. But our checklist suffices to suggest how many themes are already structures, and how many notions of ‘structure’ merely paraphrase ‘themes’ (e.g. garden/wilderness means: civilising). It also queries the solidly established paradigm of depth in texts and art. For each of these themes is a part-pattern on the surface, or cued by it, like associations or ‘overtones’, in Eisenstein’s sense. Our opening reference to configurations within a mosaic corresponds to Henry James’ “figure in the carpet”. Since these themes are superficial, everyone can spot most of them, if only fleetingly, for a few beats. For most spectators, of course, the dominating structure is this story. The Grand Design is less One Theme Illustrated by This Story than This Story Opening on to Various Ideas.
The contrary approach is exemplified by Truffaut’s dictum that a single word suffices to encapsulate a film, so that Marinbad, for example is “persuasion”. But not amnesia? Only if we say “persuasion and amnesia and …” can we escape a reductionism luckily obsolescent in bourgeois culture. But when a theme is renamed ‘structure’, and deterministically invested with hegemonic power to specify a discourse, then pseudo-structuralism (linguistics-and-ideology structuralism) reassert the monocausalism rightly deprecated by scientific-materialistic structuralism.
While a drama can only be a set of structure, and structures of conflict at that, the paradigm ‘one text/one structure’ is too often detectable, on the model ‘one cause/one effect’. More sophisticated postulates see a deep structure as a cluster of corollaries like “garden … perfumes … in My Darling Clementine. But our analysis shows that themes may be highly disparate. The second problem is that garden/wilderness also fits Black Narcissus perfectly. Less sophisticated postulates include the Proppian reduction-rightly denounced by Lévi-Strauss- of highly diverse narratives to templates found in Russian folk-tales. Yet Russian folk-narratives are so unlike modern movies that one can hardly miss the vapid universalism of this approach. Althussereanism only adapted this monocausalims, attributing a monolithic matrix called “bourgeois ideology” to a diversity of overlapping ideologies, most of them pluralistic, and therefore conflictual, to begin with.
In Black Narcissus, the disparate themes are linked, but the linking structure is a one off; the story (or rather the surface), withal its inlaid twist and turns. Certainly this structure shares many substructures with other films: some with My Darling Clementine, others with Sanders of the River others with Lost Horizon (‘eerie wisdom’), and so on. But if you change the surface you lose many of the structures. Transpose My Darling Clementine into a Russian folk-tale, and you lose the social structures that come, not with garden/wilderness, but with the American West.
Pseudo-structuralist semiotics lost its way when its schizo-formalist reduction of the signified to the signifier suppressed the reciprocal dependence of the signifier on the signified, thus reducing an always approximate connection between two separate entities to an exact correspondence-which in turn ruled out the existence of separate structures on the separate levels. When we say that surface form corresponds with thematic structure, we run related risks. In particular, we risk equating trivial and crucial features and issues, conventionalized and authenticated experience, so on. And here disagreements over the artistic merit of Black Narcissus might begin.
The splitting of signifiers from signified appears in notions that form needs no content, or when Barthes delights in Japanese signs because, not knowing the language, he can bask in a voluptuously vacant sense of enigma. A related, but negated, ‘schizo-strangeness’ inheres in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Tibetan’ culture; Powell and Pressburger resist, and rightly, the siren charm that nihilises Barthes.
The surface establishes the interaction of structures which constitutes Black Narcissus as a unique entity, as organic (in a sense, dialetic) structure. Some of its substructures are shared with other films, or with various ideologies The decoding rule, for structures, is not’ compare and equate’, but “compare and contrast”, not “reduce to ideology”, but “differentiate from ideology”. Pace Lévi-Strauss, modern art is characterized by an autonomy from myth not exactly unknown to la pensée sauvage -as the shrewd natives in Black Narcissus remind us. Ideologies are myths, and pseudo-belief is a useful concept here; it’s the condition of the spectator’s interest in the unpredictability of the specific story, told for its own interest, as other people’s experiences irrespective of any generalizations from it.

Nota: A Bresson film, with rainbows? hehehe Ó céus, amo o Durgnat.

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