We hear chords played on a piano. They seem to introduce something.
We don’t know.
We see a square filled with gray: The amorphous field of possibilities.
Then we enter history. The gray becomes a background for a group of people singing a well-known song: The Beatles’ Revolution. When John Lennon wrote it, he made a distinctly political turn, which upset his erstwhile co-writer Paul McCartney. The song appeared on the 1968 album The Beatles, (commonly known as “The White Album”). With this album, Lennon conceded, cooperation between the band members had already fallen apart: each song was a song by an individual band member with the other members providing accompaniment. The unified sound was lost. Fragmentation was evident. It was the beginning of nostalgia for the fans.
We hear a choir singing the song, but we see individual members of the choir making what seem to be first attempts to master the text.
Is this an allegory, presenting us with a select company of people very like you and me? In this case they are from the Norwegian peninsula of Lofoten, which might as well have been any European village removed from, but not out of sight of, the centre, any hamlet in some half-forgotten corner in which one may think that life has not been touched or threatened by global forces. Places such as Burgh-Haamstede, hiding behind the dunes in The Netherlands; Dornstetten, on the rim of Germany’s Black Forest; San Domenico, Italy, providing a secure vantage point of Florence; or Hericourt, France, which any hitchhiker may pass unaware that this tiny village was once the site of a great battle.
Indeed, the choir could have been any choir in a comparable place. But this is not allegorical, for in its brilliant simplicity Zdjelar’s work is an extremely touching elaboration of what modern history is, and more specifically: modern tragedy.
history and script
The song Revolution is about a script for history, or the desire for an historical script. The very idea of a revolution presupposes that one has had enough of the status quo and wants to overthrow it, to turn the page of the past and make a new start. The constitution needs changing, or to be committed to the flames and written again. In the song the singer-speaker rejects such a desire for a scripted history (‘we’d all love to see the plan’). He doesn’t want to be party to any nasty destruction (‘count me out’), but neither does he accept the status quo. He assures his listeners (and those desiring a revolution) that everything is ‘gonna be all right’. This is hardly a description but it still fits a script.
Actually, within the song there is a collision between two historical scripts, both utopian, one violent and the other non-violent. It is quite clear how the speaker-singer is himself being scripted, re-iterating arguments that we know from the great revolutions of the late 18th, mid-19th, and early 20th centuries, or reproducing a form of religious faith in the future in which we are all going to be fine if we just ‘do what we can’.
As the choir starts to sing, the ‘I’ of the song is multiplied. Those familiar with Revolution, and the scream with which it starts, will still hear Lennon’s voice through the choir’s harmonious tranquility. This highlights the scripted-ness of the voices. Consequently, there is plenty of room for irony. But Zdjelar adds a twist that makes the piece into an elaboration on scripted-ness itself that is not at all ironic.
Often, the individuals singing with the choir appear lost, struggling with the words. Intensely looking at something that we cannot see, searching for something for which they cannot find a match. This something is the text, scripted. This is the script that all these individual characters are trying firstly to follow, then to incorporate, and finally to become one with. What is at stake is the status of history. History is either that which takes place between the attempt to read what is happening, and what is actually happening – or history is that which in happening finds its place through the inscription of people who are unsure about what the script actually is. In both cases human beings do not make history, nor does history make them. But history does not equate with script either. The wavering, stumbling performance of the script is not about history; it is history itself, or rather, one modality of it.
When at the end, the song fades out with the famous line ‘everything is gonna be all right’ one of the members of the choir is still singing, without sound, ‘all right’, ‘all right’, whilst looking with eyes that are both empty and focused on the shape of what he is singing: the words that reassure him ‘all right’, ‘all right’. It is as if he is unconsciously deciphering a text that comes through him from some distant place, and has not yet reached any conclusion. He has no clue as to what is happening to him whilst he seems to be the actor that produces the very happening.
Why things happen is not so much the riddle of history, what is genuinely puzzling is why they should have happened at all. Confronted with the radical contingency of history, Georg Lukács, the famous Hungarian philosopher, considered history’s fundamental irony. It is fundamentally ironic that for each of us, given an infinite number of possibilities, a particular action should materialize. Why did the egg hatch? Why did the ovum attract this particular little seed with no clue where it was headed? One tiny little detour, one little obstacle, and I would have been another person with another body. On the broader scale of history one can think of the beginnings of the First World War (which, incidentally, provides us with the model for the Second World War.) If there had been someone a little slow ahead of Gavrilo Princip at the bakery where he bought his sandwich, and if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not suddenly decided to change his route the incredible coincidence of the Archduke and Duchess Sophia meeting their assassin would not have occurred.
Because of this fundamental irony there is something strangely, uncannily funny in history. That is, if you are one of the onlookers. If you are part of the coincidence that determines what history is going to be, things may take a tragic turn.
The question of what tragedy is can only be answered in relation to distinct cultural-historical contexts, of course. There is no such thing as the universal “tragic”. Tragedy has nevertheless been read largely through an understanding of “classical tragedy”. This reading has itself been muddled by the impossibility of Christian tragedy, because Christianity has a script with a happy ending for those who are justly saved or an appropriate end for those who are deservedly punished.
After the holocaust tragedy has been declared obsolete, along with genocides that have occurred since. After such events nothing can qualify as tragedy proper. How could one find ways to represent the horrors and tragic ending of a holocaust? The issue has proven to be extremely complicated, because if it were possible to do so, tragedy would exist predominantly on the level of representation. We would then be onlookers in the field of representation, which puts the onlookers in reality (who we also are) under erasure. Any true tragedy, of course, materializes in reality. To be sure, representation is a form of reality. But it is distinct from what happens and happened in reality, which, as such, becomes illusive the moment after it has materialized. On the level of representation tragedy becomes, consciously or subconsciously, a matter of repetition or reflection: a form of re-staging that creates quasi-tragedy or retro-tragedy.
historical consciousness as tragedy
The famous phrase in relation to traumatized holocaust survivors – in fact all traumatized people – is that they are “caught in history”. They are never over it, or past it, they are incapable of reflecting upon it, they can never swallow or digest it. The trauma consists in the remaining present-ness of horrific past events, which because of their perpetual presence cannot be historicized.
Zdjelar’s subjects are being caught differently in history, however, almost in an opposite way. They do not seem to be traumatized, nor do they appear as perpetrators of any crime. At best they are little criminals. There they are: people just like you and me in the prosperous West; living in well furnished houses, well dressed, with well fed, healthy (or healthy enough), trained bodies, and, on average, well on their way to a ripe old-age. They sing songs together in a choir that meets once a week. They sing about a destruction they do not want, they express their hopes that everything is gonna be all right, while in actual fact they are completely irrelevant to the unfolding of history. They know they have a place in it, somewhere, somehow. But at the same time they are just looking at it, sensing the split between what history is and their inability to make history.
The point of tragedy is that one is involuntarily caught in a specific sequence of actions and events, in one history, whilst at the same time the possibilities of other actions and other histories can be sensed. But these other possibilities, tragically, do not materialize. Whereas holocaust survivors may be caught in history Zdjelar shows us a form of tragedy in which one is caught in the present, whilst at the same time being somehow aware that one is witnessing the ‘wrong’ history.
Subjected to history these are people who suffer being unable to become the subjects of history. They long for history to take place, whilst fearing the very possibility of it. Their way of being caught in history consists in their inability to escape the position of being historicized before even having become present.
Mind you, they are present as characters, struggling to find a place, to find a match between what they do and say, or what they feel and sing. . They may even reach some kind of harmony. But somehow, fundamentally, their eyes are fixed on what will never become truly theirs. Their bodies will try to rouse themselves, but will remain still. They are not lost. They are nice people on whom history played a nasty trick. Singing about a revolution without a clue of what it is, they miss the right words. Embarrassing. They strike a pose, too early, too late. They swallow what they need to say. They ask what is being asked of them. They know they are acting whilst not-acting and making history whilst not making it. Are these the right actions? Is this the right history?
It pains me to see them like that.
It pains us to see us like this.
Who tricked us into this? Who blocked the escape? Who caught us in our own reflection? Should we sing? Why not? We’ll even sing when the music has stopped, when our voice has disappeared. Our mouths will express what nobody can hear.
Then we’ll stop.